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"If You're Not Living on the Edge, Then You're Taking Up Space": Flo Kennedy

Posted: Mar 06, 2011

Most people are familiar with the life and career of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, but how many people are familiar with her contemporary-- the flamboyant and vociferous Florynce Rae Kennedy (1916-2000).

To commemorate both Black History Month (February) and Women's History Month (March), my long-time friend and colleague Patsy Glenn agreed to write a feature about an historic meeting that involved herself, Rosa Parks, and Florynce Kennedy. She calls her article: Meeting the Icons. But first some background on these two amazing and strikingly different women.

Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1915, and Florynce Kennedy was born on February 11, 1916, in Kansas City, Missouri. After the death of her mother, Flo and her sister Grace left for New York in 1942, moving to an apartment in Harlem. Flo attended law school at Columbia University and received her JD degree in 1951-- the first African-American woman to graduate from the prestigious law school.
One of the original members of the National Organization for Women, Flo left the organization in 1970 when she became dissatisfied with their approach to change. In 1971 she founded the Feminist Party, which nominated Shirley Chisholm for president. She also helped found the Women's Political Caucus. 1n 1974 People magazine called Flo Kennedy "The biggest, loudest and, indisputably, the rudest mouth on the battleground."

Flo Kennedy is known for her pro-choice activism on abortion, writing a book called Abortion Rap, and her famous statement that "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." In 1972, Flo filed tax evasion charges with the IRS against the Catholic Church, saying that their pro-life campaign violated the separation of church and state.

Flo wrote in her autobiography Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times (1976), "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. 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."

She liked to dress in pants and wear a cowboy hat and pink sunglasses. Once a judge told her she wasn't dressed properly for court because she was wearing pants. She wrote: "He's sitting there in a long black dress gathered at the yoke, and I said, 'Judge, if you won't talk about what I'm wearing, I won't talk about what you're wearing."

Jonathan Lawson on the website Reclaim the Media made the following observation about Flo Kennedy: "With righteous anger matched by a sharp and often foul-mouthed wit, Flo Kennedy modeled creative, radical resistance for generations of feminists."

One of Flo's favorite phrases was "Kick Ass!" She said  in her autobiography "We were taught early on not to take any shit from anyone"

Florynce Kennedy had a long and high-profile career as a lawyer, activist, and militant, but by the late '80s she had suffered three strokes and two heart attacks and was confined to a wheelchair. Throughout it all she maintained her sense of humor. Debbie Lang writes in Remembering Flo Kennedy: "She held memorial parties for herself so she wouldn't miss them after she died. Shocked friends would call her up, thinking she had passed away and she would just laugh and say, "Well, are you coming?" "

Florynce Kennedy died in New York City in December of 2000.

Patsy Glenn, who writes of meeting Flo Kennedy and Rosa Parks at a National Organization for Women (NOW) conference in Mobile, Alabama, in 1985, is a resident of Florence, Alabama. She was active in the The National Organization for Women from the early 1980's through the early 1990's. She served on the MidSouth Regional Board and as President of the Alabama Chapter from 1989 through 1992. Although no longer a member of NOW, Patsy remains active in civil rights efforts for all who still find themselves facing discrimination. She is a writer and a graduate of both Athens State University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.

----Penne J. Laubenthal
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   Meeting the Icons: Flo Kennedy and Rosa Parks


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