This spring, Deadline announced a forthcoming movie adaptation of Rick Bowers’ YA nonfiction book Superman vs. the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate, which is surprisingly almost exactly what it sounds like. Yes, I said nonfiction. Not to ruin the book or movie for anyone, but this is one of my favorite real-life stories about Superman, so I’m very happy to have an excuse to talk about it.
I’ve written before about The Adventures of Superman, the wildly popular radio serial starring Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander. In brief, it ran from 1940 to 1951, with over two thousand episodes to its name, and created crucial aspects of Superman’s mythology, from Jimmy Olsen to kryptonite to Superman’s power of flight. Though Superman comics of the time sold literally millions of copies, it was the radio show that brought the character to adults as well as children, and firmly entrenched him as a household name.
Early Superman was always a left-leaning, populist rabble-rouser, and as World War II wore on, his opposition to fascism and bigotry became more pronounced. The opening narration (the source of that famous “It’s a bird!” “It’s a plane!” exchange) had always described Superman as a “champion of the oppressed,” but after a few years they added “champion of equal rights” and “fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice.” The characters repeatedly tangled with bigots and hate groups of all stripes, including anti-Semites and Nazis in hiding.
Enter Stetson Kennedy. Kennedy, a Florida-born activist, had spent the late thirties working for the WPA and traveling across the still-segregated state with Zora Neale Hurston, which gave him an up-close look at the virulent bigotry present in the Deep South. When a bad back prevented him from enlisting in World War II, he decided to serve his country by infiltrating white supremacist organizations instead, most notably the Ku Klux Klan.
Kennedy would go on to write a number of books about the Klan and the Jim Crow South, but initially couldn’t get them published in the States (they were published in France by Jean-Paul Sartre, of all people!). He needed a wider platform to expose the Klan’s practices in their home country – and there was no greater platform in the 1940s than The Adventures of Superman.
The story changes a bit here depending on who you ask. Some, including Kennedy, say he approached the producers of the radio show, while historian Larry Tye argues in his Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero that producer Robert Maxwell was already thinking proactively about how to use his hero to expose bigotry and champion diversity. In Tye’s telling, Maxwell, who was Jewish, consulted with multiple experts to shape his “Operation Tolerance” initiative, which included a five week storyline in which Jimmy Olsen went toe-to-toe with an anti-semitic organization called “the Hatemongers.” It was the Anti-Defamation League that passed Kennedy’s information on to Maxwell.
However Kennedy and Maxwell got in touch, the result was “The Clan of the Fiery Cross.” It starts innocuously enough, with Jimmy telling Clark all about his baseball team’s new star pitcher, Chinese American Tommy Lee – but trouble arises when Tommy’s white rival Chuck Riggs complains to his uncle Matt, the grand scorpion of the titular Clan. For sixteen episodes, listeners held their breath as the Lees and the Daily Planet staff were terrorized by Clansmen – with Superman, of course, swooping in to save the day at the last minute.
What’s less important than superpowers and last-minute saves was the way “Clan of the Fiery Cross” exposed the workings of the KKK via their thinly-veiled white-robed villains. By broadcasting both the Klan’s “secret rituals” as well as their techniques of blackmail and silencing and the ultimately for-profit nature of their organization, The Adventures of Superman removed their mystique, made their ideological similarities to the recently-defeated Nazis explicit, and turned them into an object of scorn. There’s a persistent story that Kennedy even passed along actual Klan passwords which had to be changed by anxious Klan leaders after they were broadcast to millions of homes. This has never been confirmed by anyone but the tirelessly self-promoting Kennedy, but certainly Klan recruitment and membership took a nosedive, and a year later Georgia revoked the Klan’s national corporate charter.
Also crucial is the way Clark Kent, paragon of morality, confronts the Clan’s vitriol (which distressingly sounds pretty much like something you might still hear spewed from certain media outlets today). In a voice dripping with disdain, he calls intolerance “a filthy weed” and sums up the Clan as “cowardly gangsters who operate at night, hidden behind sheets and hoods…Their minds are diseased with hate.” As he warns Jimmy, who can’t understand why a swell kid like Tommy is being targeted: “Look, most Americans realize the danger of allowing intolerance to breed. Now we saw what happened to Germany and Italy and other European countries when a gang of murdering bigots like the Fiery Cross mob got in power.”
At another point, Perry White, despite being held captive by the Clan, who are threatening to tar and feather him and Jimmy, goes full blood ‘n’ thunder on them:
“I happen to love my country and what it stands for: equal rights and privileges for all Americans, regardless of what church they choose to worship God in or what color skin God gave them. The United States was founded on that principle, and we’ve just fought a second World War to preserve it. You and others like your with your diseased minds want to tear down what we’ve built and fought to keep, but you can’t do it. I’ll fight you to the last breath and so will every other American worth his salt. We’ll flush you and your hate-peddling goons out from behind your dirty sheets and clap you in jail where you belong!”
Meanwhile, Kellogg’s, the show’s sponsor, proudly boasted that theirs was the breakfast of tolerance, and parents wrote to Maxwell praising his counterbalancing the violence and intrigue of his show with such wholesome values. The saddest thing about this story is that I can hardly picture Clark and Perry being allowed to make such blatantly political speeches today, even against the KKK, or an advertiser celebrating such a potentially divisive plotline. (People certainly freaked out when Superman renounced his American citizenship a few years ago.)
To me, though, it’s not just startling but stirring to hear one of my all-time favorite heroes flatly denouncing white supremacy. As far as I’m concerned, DC could take a few pointers from this old tale. Hopefully the upcoming movie will give them a bit of encouragement.
The film, which will be directed by Katherine Lindberg, likely won’t be out for a couple of years, but you can check out Bowers’ book in the meantime, or listen to all sixteen public domain episodes of “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” (plus some truly hilarious vintage Kellogg’s commercials) here. (Please note that the Clan’s speeches are, of course, disturbing, and anti-Chinese slurs are used by villains throughout.)