Kennedy, Florynce (1916–2000)

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Kennedy, Florynce (1916–2000)

African-American lawyer who fought for civil and women's rights. Name variations: Flo Kennedy. Born on February 11, 1916, in Kansas City, Missouri; died on December 21, 2000, in New York; second of five daughters of Wiley Kennedy and Zella Kennedy; graduated from Lincoln High School, Kansas City; bachelor's degree from Columbia University, New York City; law degree from Columbia Law School, 1951; married Charles Dudley Dye (a writer), in 1957 (divorced); no children.

Described variously as outrageous, outspoken, aggressive, profane, and shocking, lawyer and activist Florynce "Flo" Kennedy made a name for herself during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s as a civil and women's rights activist and as a spokesperson for other diverse groups as well. "I'm just a loud-mouthed middle-aged colored lady with a fused spine and three feet of intestines missing and a lot of people think I'm crazy," she wrote in her autobiography Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times (1976). "Maybe you do too, but I never stop to wonder why I'm not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren't like me."

Born in 1916 in Kansas City, Missouri, Kennedy described her family as part of the "Pooristocrats" of the black community, and she attributed her outspoken, aggressive nature to an upbringing in which she was taught to question authority and to trust in herself. "Our parents had us so convinced we were precious," she writes, "that by the time I found out I was nothing, it was already too late—I knew I was something." Even before high school, Kennedy knew she wanted to be a lawyer, but she was 28 before she was able in enter college. She graduated Columbia pre-law with an "A" average, but was initially turned down when she applied to Columbia Law School. When she alleged that she was rejected because of race and threatened a fight, the university reversed its decision and accepted her. She graduated in 1951 and, by 1954, had established her own private practice. Although she was never keen on the institution of marriage, in 1957 Kennedy wed Charles Dudley Dye, whom she later described as a "Welsh science-fiction writer and a drunk." The union was short-lived, and Kennedy never married again.

Flo Kennedy was briefly in partnership with Don Wilkes, with whom she defended Billie Holiday against government charges that the singer failed to register before leaving the country on her last European tour. Holiday's agent neglected to advise her of the federal statute requiring persons convicted on narcotics charges to inform the government each time they left the country, so Holiday embarked on her tour without doing so. Wilkes persuaded the U.S. attorney not to indict the singer, but Holiday died shortly after winning the case. Kennedy later represented Holiday's estate, and that of the late Charlie Parker, in efforts to recoup monies in royalties and sales denied the performers. She also represented the activist H. Rap Brown on several occasions, although by this time she was beginning to grow disenchanted with what she saw as a racist and bigoted court system in which no justice could be found.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Kennedy was an active and outspoken leader in the civil rights and feminist movements, although her fight for equality embraced, as she put it, "all aspects of our oppressive society." In 1966, she founded the Media Workshop, designed to "deal with racism in media and advertising," and she was also an original member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), but left when it "got to be so boring and scared." Believing that racism is the most blatant form of oppression in the country, Kennedy attended all four Black Power Conferences (1967, 1968, 1969, and 1970) and also formed the Feminist Party, which worked to support Shirley Chisholm as a presidential candidate. Kennedy also spoke at numerous colleges and universities and at rallies across the country.

In 1972, Flo Kennedy moved from New York to California. That same year, she filed a complaint against the Catholic Church with the Internal Revenue Service, alleging that the church violated the tax-exempt requirement by spending money to influence political decisions, particularly those dealing with abortion. She also co-authored, with Diane Schulter , one of the first books on abortion, Abortion Rap.

In 1975, on the occasion of her 70th birthday, Kennedy was roasted by friends and colleagues at an affair in New York City. In attendance were comic activist Dick Gregory, civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, and television talk show host Phil Donahue. After the celebration, she was back on the speaking circuit, bringing yet another cause to the public's attention. She died at the age of 84 in 2000.


Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts.

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