Florynce Kennedy was an American lawyer, activist, civil rights advocate, lecturer and one of the pioneers of second-wave feminism.
Kennedy was born in 1916 in Kansas City, Missouri. She grew up in a mostly white neighbourhood, and as a young child was arrested as the police didn’t believe she lived in the neighbourhood. On one occasion, her father had to ward off the Ku Klux Klan with a shotgun to keep them from driving the Kennedy family out. Her parents instilled in her a “a fantastic sense of security and worth. By the time the bigots got around to telling us that we were nobody, we already knew we were somebody.“ Kennedy graduated top of her class from Lincoln High School, and deferred college to open K’s (for Kennedy’s) Hat Shoppe with her sisters. She then worked a variety of other jobs, and when the local coca-cola batting factory refused to hire black truck drivers, she made her first foray into social activism by organising a boycott.
After the death of Kennedy’s mother, she moved to New York City and enrolled at Columbia University as a pre-law student in 1944. In her senior year, she applied for Columbia Law School but was rejected not because of her race, but because of her gender. Kennedy wrote to the dean threatening a discrimination lawsuit and in 1948 was admitted to the law school. She was one of only eight women, and the only black member of her class and was awarded her law degree in 1951. Kennedy was only the second African-American woman to graduate from Columbia Law School. In 1952, she passed the New York bar and two years later, she opened her own office on Madison Avenue.
Kennedy took on high profile clients, including Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, and would frequently experience racism in both the courts, and the cases she fought. In the 1960’s, she began to focus her attention on political activism and was intersectional in her attitude towards discrimination, fighting against racism, sexism and homophobia. Kennedy led boycotts of large corporations, picketed the Colgate-Palmolive building, led protests at CBS headquarters and protested against the Vietnam war.
In 1966, Kennedy founded the Media Workshop, an organisation which focused on fighting racism and discrimination in the media. She led protests against advertisers who refused to feature people of colour in the advertisements. In one instance, the ad agency Benton and Bowles refused to provide the Workshop with requested hiring and programming information, leading to the group picketing the Fifth Avenue office. Kennedy would later say, ‘When you want to get to the suites, start in the streets.’ as the agency then invited them inside to discuss the matter. That same year, Kennedy represented civil rights activist H. Rap Brown, Assata Shakur and the Black Panthers.
From 1967, Kennedy began a speaking career that would last for the next two decades, following Black Panther Bobby Seale being refused the opportunity to speak at an anti-war convention in Montreal. Kennedy took the podium, and a lecturing career followed that would see her speak at over 200 colleges and universities. She also spoke at a wide range of significant events including the Coat Hanger Farewell Protest on the abortion issue – in 1968, Kennedy sued the Roman Catholic church for ‘interfering with efforts to liberalise abortion laws and in 1969 she organised feminist lawyers to challenge the constitutionality of New York state’s anti-abortion laws, leading to the laws being overturned. She also participated in anti-Nixon demonstrations, picketing Avon International for support for the three-hour Celebrate Women TV program, the MAMA March—the March Against Media Arrogance—and the organization of a demonstration, a “pee-in,” at Harvard University protesting the lack of women’s restrooms. In 1976, she published her autobiography, Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times about her life and career.
Kennedy was an intersectional feminist, she helped to found the Women’s Political Caucus, the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) and was an original member of the National Organisation for Women (NOW). In 1970, Kennedy wrote a piece entitled “Institutionalized oppression vs. the female” for the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings From The Women’s Liberation Movement. In 1971 Kennedy founded the Feminist Party in order to support Shirley Chisholm’s presidential candidacy. A year later, she began serving on the Advisory Board of the Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective, a New York City theatre group that produced plays on feminist issues. Kennedy continued her activism until her death, and in 1997 was awarded a Lifetime Courageous Activist Award for her work. She died in 2000 at the age of 84, having helped to create solidarity between the black power movement and the feminist movement.