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Bloomington-Normal civil rights leader dies at 92

BLOOMINGTON-NORMAL (WEEK) – The Bloomington-Normal NAACP announced the death of local civil rights activist and community leader, Merlin Kennedy.

Kennedy was 92 years old and was a former president of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP Chapter.

According to the McLean County Museum of History, Kennedy was known for his efforts to have a black Santa Claus at the annual Chamber of Commerce Christmas Parade. In 1965, the NAACP was kicked out of that parade for entering a float featuring a black Santa. The law at the time stated that only one Santa was allowed at the parade. The next year, Kennedy dressed in a Santa suit during a city council meeting to protest the rule, and assured the community there would be a black Santa at the parade.

He kept his promise. Kennedy, along with three others, dressed as black Santas. The history museum reports Kennedy’s memory of this. Kennedy said, “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.”

“If there’s one thing we can learn from Mr. Kennedy, it would certainly be his love and compassion for humankind,” Dr. Carla Campbell-Jackson said.

Dr. Campbell-Jackson is the first Vice President of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP.

“So at the end of the day what matters is how we treat people and how we value each other,” she added.

The  NAACP said Kennedy was also known for his efforts related to the Fair Housing Act in the twin cities. The history museum reports Kennedy helped white and black couples apply for rental units. The plan demonstrated the contrasting responses from landlords. This lead to the first fair housing ordinance in the area in 1967. According to the history museum, it was the strongest in the state at that time.

Details about Kennedy’s passing have not been released.

Molly Jirasek

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