by Contributor Hailey Ferguson
Whenever one thinks of the Civil Rights movement, they might envision a picture of leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or John Lewis. However, many black women were instrumental in the Civil Rights movement. Civil rights lawyer and activist Flo Kennedy challenged sexism and racism throughout her life in a way all her own.
According to Sue Davis, a writer for Workers World, Flo Kennedy had a long and visible career as a lawyer, champion of human rights, an activist, and feminist. Since the 1950s, Kennedy uncompromisingly attacked racism, inequality, and sexism. Kennedy was an original member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the founder of the Feminist Party, a vocal spokesperson for women, African Americans, and other minorities, and was a staunch defender of civil rights generally.
Kennedy started off her career in law by challenging the status quo and fighting for her admittance into Columbia Law School. In 1948, Kennedy applied to Columbia Law School, but she was initially denied entrance. Kennedy challenged the dean, asserting that she was denied entrance because of her race. The dean countered that she was denied entrance because of her race, but because of her gender. Kennedy persisted, and she eventually became the second black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1951.
According to Sue Davis, during the beginning for her career, Flo Kennedy desired to challenge racism, fight for more corporate accountability, and defend the civil rights of her clients. Kennedy took on high profile clients, including H. Rap Brown. Furthermore, Jen Chen, associate producer for KCUR, asserts that Kennedy went on to represent Assata Shakur, a female member of the Black Liberation Front who was charged with bank robbery. Kennedy also assisted in representing several Black Panther members that were charged with a conspiracy to blow up stores in New York City.
She sued the New York archdiocese for interfering with abortion rights. Kennedy took a special interest in abortion rights, and she wrote Abortion Rap in the 1960s. In her article It’s Damn Sick Out There, Kennedy recounts her time in the the Civil Rights movement during the 1970s and 1980s. Kennedy emphasizes that she was inspired by the struggles of the Vietnamese women who showed the world and other women across the globe that it was okay to fight to change the course of the world. Kennedy lamented the slow progression of change, but also commented that she was proud to see how her work as a feminist and a champion for change had positively affected the world.
In the article, Kennedy also stated that her work in the 1960s was a continuation of what she did in her twenties in Kansas City, Missouri, where she boycotted Coca-Cola for refusing to hire black drivers. Kennedy’s writing style is candid, blunt, informative, and impossible to put down.
In the article Saluting Black Feminist Flo Kennedy, Mary Reinholz recounts several interviews she had with Kennedy over the years. She described Kennedy as an advocate for the oppressed, someone who offered legal counsel and support free of charge, someone who was vivacious, and a woman that brought people closer together. Kennedy is remembered as a leader that was unapologetically herself, wearing cowboy hats and pink sunglasses while battling sexism, racism, homophobia, and oppression.
Flo Kennedy was instrumental in women’s liberation movement and the Civil Rights movement, and her work should be remembered for generations to come.
Hailey Ferguson is a guest contributor for the Black Wall St. Times and is a proud ally for people of color, an advocate for women’s rights, and is a member of Aware Tulsa‘s Vision Team. She currently studies Social Work at Northeastern State University.