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Freakonomics in the Times Magazine: Hoodwinked?

Freakonomics includes a chapter titled “How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?” This was our effort to bring to life the rather unlively economic concept known as information asymmetry.

The hero of the Klan story was Stetson Kennedy, a lifelong human-rights agitator who is best known for having infiltrated the Klan in the 1940’s in order to expose its shadowy secrets. He wrote a book about his exploits, called The Klan Unmasked.

As it turns out, however, Stetson Kennedy’s own history is pretty shadowy. This is the subject of “Hoodwinked,” our latest Freakonomics column in the New York Times Magazine. Click here to read the article.

The article is based on an examination of a few thousand pages of documents held in various archives around the country. These included Kennedy’s personal correspondence, draft articles, memos to his sponsoring organizations (labor unions and human-rights groups, for example), as well as unpublished interviews.

Below is a sampling of the documents that led us to conclude that the story that Stetson Kennedy told in The Klan Unmasked – and the story we related in Freakonomics – was not quite kosher. The greatest discrepancy is that many of the adventures that Kennedy described as autobiographical in fact seem to have been based on the efforts of a different man, a Klan informant named John Brown. We are in the process of amending the Klan chapter of our book; it, along with several smaller corrections, will be included in Freakonomics the next time the book is reprinted.

  1. A memo from Stetson Kennedy to (probably) the Anti-Defamation League (for whom he worked), dated Jan. 21, 1946. Kennedy describes how the man known in future memos as John Brown, a union worker and former Klan official, is “joining the Klan for me.” (click here to download the pdf)
  2. Another memo from Kennedy to the A.D.L., three days after the previous memo, confirming that “my man” (John Brown) was initiated into the Atlanta Klan. (click here to download the pdf)
  3. A memo from John Brown, dated Feb. 7, 1946, with details from a recent Klan meeting. Although this memo and the previous one, which was authored by Kennedy, seem to have been prepared in the same formatting, perhaps even on the same typewriter, the writing styles of Brown and Kennedy are distinctly different. (click here to download the pdf)
  4. A memo from Kennedy, dated May 6, 1946, in which he passes along various information gleaned from John Brown. “Our informant,” he writes, “is now a member of the Klan’s inner circle, the Kavalier Klub.” In Kennedy’s book The Klan Unmasked, it was Kennedy himself who joined the inner circle. (click here to download the pdf)
  5. Kennedy’s report of a public Klan meeting held in Knoxville in May, 1946. Although his archives testify to Kennedy’s tireless pursuit of information about the Klan and other hate groups, his own archives suggest that he gathered most of his evidence not as an infiltrator but as an activist or a reporter, attending public Klan gatherings and conducting legitimate interviews with Klan leaders and sympathizers. (click here to download the pdf)
  6. Kennedy’s report of his interview with J.B. Stoner, a Klan officer in Tennessee. In his book The Klan Unmasked, Kennedy writes of Stoner’s fiery speech to a group of Klansmen in Atlanta – an event that, according to Kennedy’s own archives, was witnessed not by Kennedy but by his Klan informant, John Brown. (click here to download the pdf)
  7. A letter from Kennedy under his assumed name, “John S. Perkins.” In The Klan Unmasked, Kennedy writes how he used the Perkins name to physically infiltrate the Klan in Atlanta. As demonstrated by this letter to the A.S.P. (American Shore Patrol, a reputed Klan front group), Kennedy did indeed join hate groups by mail under his assumed identity – here he was posing as a representative for a white supremacist magazine – but there is scant evidence that he physically infiltrated the Klan. (click here to download the pdf)
  8. A letter from Kennedy to The New Republic (then crossed out and re-addressed to the Amsterdam News) in which he touts his exclusive access to John Brown, a Klan informant “that no one else, including the FBI,” has. Kennedy relayed John Brown’s information to various newspapers, magazines, and radio programs; the last paragraph of the letter would seem to indicate that Kennedy at the very least split his fees with the informant. (click here to download the pdf)