Merlin Robert Kennedy, civil rights activist, community leader
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Born Nov. 7, 1926
The local story of the American Civil Rights Movement cannot be told without a chapter on Merlin Kennedy. His unique style of leadership and bold demonstrations against segregation made national headlines as the nation struggled to redefine race relations.
Merlin was born in Decatur, IL and was drafted by the U.S. Navy in 1945 before he graduated high school. He successfully finished his high school diploma and moved to Detroit, MI after he completed his duties in 1949. With help from the G.I. Bill he trained over five years to be a mechanical draftsman at the Chrysler Engineering Institute, working days at the DeSoto automobile plant and attending class at night. He also received certification to work as a diesel mechanic.
“Every chance or opportunity I got to go to school, I was there," Merlin said. “Every crack they opened up, I crawled in."
Unemployment in the Motor City was high due to a series of layoffs in the automobile industry. This forced him to move back to Illinois, seeking a job and better pay. He initially returned to Decatur where he successfully trained to be a solo pilot, but found employers weren't interested in hiring a black pilot.
In 1959 Merlin moved in with his brother in Bloomington and sought out jobs as a mechanical draftsman. He remembers being told each time he applied for a draftsman position that his training was too good and they needed someone with “lesser standards."
“'Lesser standards' was [code for] not a permanent sun tan," he said. “I never did find a job as a draftsman."
Merlin eventually earned a spot with the Eureka-Williams Company as a punch press operator. He moved up the ranks quickly until he applied to become a foreman. He said the general manager at the time didn't want a black foreman on his staff, so Merlin officially protested the discrimination to company officials. He eventually got the job and supervised more than 60 employees.
By the mid-1960s, Merlin's protests were moving to the public stage. He had been inspired by the 1960 state convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that had been held in Bloomington. He joined in as protestors walked outside of Woolworth's and Kresge's downtown storefronts, calling for an end to segregated lunch counters in Illinois and throughout states in the South. He was later elected president of the local chapter of the NAACP.
In 1965-66 Merlin traveled with Ralph Smith, a fellow civil rights worker, to Jackson, MS to help with voter registration. As the NAACP president, Merlin worked again with Smith on fair housing in Bloomington-Normal. They recruited white and black couples to apply for rental units. If the couples heard contrasting feedback about the availability of a property, the NAACP would file a complaint against the landlord. The plan was a success, leading to the first fair housing ordinance in the region in 1967 and the strongest in the state at the time.
The duo was also instrumental in the founding of human relations commissions in Bloomington and Normal.
“We were lucky to get the housing law without bloodshed, but they did throw a brick once and there were threatening letters and phone calls," Merlin remembers.
During that time, Merlin also helped found a grassroots organization to develop more provocative demonstrations than the NAACP would permit. Its members called the group “US". They targeted landlords, bureaucrats, and business leaders with public protests and boycotts.
“It was basically a group to agitate and confront," he said.
Some of their collaborations alongside the NAACP included a 1965 march around the courthouse square in support of voter rights in the South and a triumvirate of parade floats that flew in the face of local holiday traditions.
In May 1966, Merlin took on the segregated American Legion posts in Bloomington-Normal, a move that inspired criticism from both the white and black Legion members. Merlin says he was denied membership to the white post, so he rode on a Memorial Day Parade float that stated “Our War dead died together. Bloomington segregated their honor today."
By November of that year, Merlin was ready for his most indelible act of defiance. The previous year, the NAACP was kicked out of the annual Chamber of Commerce Christmas Parade for illegally entering a float that featured a black Santa Claus. The downtown Bloomington merchants and the City of Bloomington tried to stop a similar float in 1966, pointing to a rule that only allowed one Santa Claus to appear in the parade.
As president of the NAACP, Merlin not only appeared in a Santa suit during a city council meeting to protest the “One Santa Rule," he contacted media and assured them Black Santa would appear.
On the morning of the parade, police followed the float out of Franklin Park and cut off the driver at Main and Chestnut streets. Merlin and three others climbed down from the sleigh and walked the whole parade route waving to children.
“They just seen the suit and they didn't recognize a black person in the suit. One [white] woman almost jerked her little boy's arm off because he called me Santa Claus," Merlin recalls.
Though police threatened to arrest him for “disturbing the peace," Merlin was not arrested.
He did, however, inspire some arresting headlines in newspapers across the country and in JET magazine: Black Santa Rides Again, Ho Ho Ho.
“We wanted to show them the thoughts of the mayor [Bob McGraw] and everyone else in Bloomington. How they react to situations of that nature … brought their true colors out," Merlin explained.
Christmas 1967, the NAACP float featured a Nativity scene with a white Mary and a black Joseph. The sign stated, “They said there's no room at the inn, dear. We've heard that jazz before!"
Merlin and the NAACP worked with State Farm and local universities to change hiring and recruiting practices to include more minorities. State Farm eventually began to hold night classes to improve minority workers' skills which expanded their career opportunities with the company.
Merlin would run unsuccessfully for the Bloomington City Council multiple times, forcing minority issues into the municipal spotlight. He was the first chair of the Bloomington Human Relations Commission, and served on the Board of the YMCA of Bloomington. Merlin was the first recipient of the Normal Human Relations Commission's Martin Luther King, Jr. Award, and in 1999 he was awarded the NAACP's Roy Wilkins Award for his individual efforts to fight racism and motivate others to join the cause.
Merlin continues to share his story with younger generations, hoping to inspire passion for equality and fairness.
He tells students the Civil Rights Movement was all volunteer work, and it required a great deal of personal sacrifice. Merlin says he was often docked pay when he attended organizing meetings, he lost sleep due to late night calls for help, his family missed him, and he footed the bill for many fellow blacks who needed bail money following a run-in with police.
Despite the threats and losses he witnessed, Merlin says it was “the need -- the necessity for change" that got him involved just the same.
Merlin has three daughters from his first marriage to Bernice, and he helped raise two stepdaughters and one stepson with his wife Beulah. Beulah was his partner in the fight for equality. They met through their work with the local NAACP and were married for 34 years until her death in 2002.