photo credit: Walter Coker

The St. Johns River lost a great friend and champion on August 27th when Stetson Kennedy passed away surrounded by members of his family.

I met Stetson soon after I became the St. Johns Riverkeeper, and I was blessed to have spent several occasions with him at Beluthahatchee, his home near Fruit Cove. We spoke about his amazing life, including his historic infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan which exposed its secrets to authorities and the public.

He also told me about his time travelling Florida with famed African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston when they were both collecting folklore for the Florida Writers Project during the Depression.

But, mostly, we talked about the St. Johns River, which he loved dearly. Stetson grew up in Jacksonville, and he spent a great deal of time on the river when he was a boy. He believed that early contact with the river made him care about and understand nature for his entire life. He was quick to call himself an environmentalist, a term that did not come into being until Stetson was in his 60s.

Stetson stood against racism, and he fought for human rights and justice. He told me his early work transferred easily to the natural world. He believed all of us, including nature, had rights and we were entitled to have clean air, water and land. He fought for these rights during the latter stages of his life.

Stetson and Sandra joined 400 other citizens in Palatka at the St. Johns Water Management District to oppose the permit to allow Seminole County to withdraw millions of gallons of water from the St. Johns to water lawns. The District was not prepared for the overflow crowd, and Stetson was prevented from entering the building. In true Stetson Kennedy style, he and Sandra filed a Sunshine Law legal challenge against the District because his Sunshine Law rights (and his First Amendment rights) were violated.

That case is still pending. St. Johns Riverkeeper attorney Michael Howle and the First Amendment Foundation, will argue the case before the 5th District Court of Appeals on October 13- a fitting memorial.

There will be a celebration of Stetson’s life on October 1 at Beluthahatchee. I plan on attending, and I will bring a vessel of St. Johns River water to honor of one of our country’s most courageous citizens. St. Johns Riverkeeper pledges to honor Stetson’s work by fighting to protect his beloved St. Johns River.

Roll on Stetson, roll on.

You will be missed.

Neil A. Armingeon,
St. Johns Riverkeeper