'Black Santa' Civil Rights Leader Merlin Kennedy Dies | WGLT

'Black Santa' Civil Rights Leader Merlin Kennedy Dies

Oct 18, 2019

One of Bloomington-Normal most notable civil rights leaders, Merlin Kennedy, has died.

Kennedy was best known for dressing up as a black Santa Claus during the 1966 Christmas Parade, even after police told him it wasn't allowed and threatened to arrest him.

Henry Gay of Bloomington worked with Kennedy on social justice issues for many years, including housing discrimination in the city.

“All we wanted to do was be treated right and get a job, that was it. That’s the man he was,” Gay said. “To me he was more important than Martin Luther King.” 

Gay recalled how Kennedy’s determination to appear as Santa was a touchstone moment in the civil rights movement.

“That made a lot of changes,” Gay recalled. “You could see the expressions on the kids. You’ve been telling your kids all the time there was no black Santa Claus, and how are you going to tell them there’s no black Santa Claus when there’s one right out there?”

Carla Campbell-Jackson, vice president of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP, called Kennedy an icon who left a profound legacy. She recalled when her 12-year-old son, Bradley Ross, read an excerpt of Rev. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech during a 100th anniversary celebration of the local NAACP chapter.

“After the banquet, (Kennedy) and my son had a conversation and he was trying to impart the importance of keeping up the tradition,” Campell-Jackson said. “That’s very powerful to know that someone who’s very passionate about the NAACP was willing to help others carry on the tradition, even (to) a 12-year-old man.

“His legacy not only stops with him, it will linger for years and even generations to come.”

Linda Foster, president of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP, said Kennedy laid the groundwork for herself and others to continue the movement for justice.

“He encouraged me to continue in this fight, continue to be about the work of the people,” Foster said.

According to the McLean County Museum of History, which named Kennedy a McLean County History Maker in 2015, Kennedy and fellow civil rights advocate Ralph Smith were instrumental in establishing human rights commissions in Bloomington-Normal.

They recruited black and white couples to apply for rental units and would file complaints against any landlord who gave differing stories of housing availability to the couples.

Gay noted Kennedy’s efforts helped open doors for African-American men to find work.

“He worked for the people,” Gay said. “He didn’t just work for the black people. He worked for all people.”

Local labor leader Mike Matejka recalled Kennedy as a good-natured man with a sense of humor, but he wasn’t afraid to “push the envelope” in civil rights issues.

“He could push the issue without necessarily getting angry, but at the same time he knew what he was saying was just and right,” Matejka said. “He put himself forward and took some bold positions at the time.”

Kennedy was 92. He had been battling a lengthy illness.

Kibler Brady Ruestman Memorial Home of Bloomington is handling funeral arrangements.

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