In this day and age of superhero movie mania, we're used to seeing these uniformed men and women fighting the good fight up on the big screen. But, just when I thought that superheroes fighting crime was purely fiction, I recently learned the totally crazy-sounding story about how Superman helped defeat the Ku Klux Klan.
Yes, that's right, it may sound totally bananas, but back in the 1940s Superman played a huge part in ensuring that rising Klan numbers were stemmed, and actually declined. Confused? So was I! Let's take a journey back to 1940s:
Undercover hero Stetson Kennedy
Following World War II, human rights activist Stetson Kennedy noticed that the KKK was undergoing a resurgence in popularity. Actions such as the Klan burning a 300-foot cross into the face of Stone Mountain near Atlanta were intended to send threatening messages to black Americans that the Klan was "back on the market."
Kennedy was able to infiltrate the KKK, and learned information such as secret codewords and details of Klan rituals. He then took his information to the authorities, but was surprised to find they were reluctant to act on his intel. The Klan was so powerful that even the police were afraid to take action. Realizing he needed a different way to approach the issue, Kennedy thought outside the box, and came up with a very innovative solution.
From fictional crime fighter to real life hero
From 1940 until 1951, radio serial The Adventures of Superman was a huge sensation. The series was broadcast on radio across the country, and had a huge following, particularly among children. Realizing the power that the broadcast had, Kennedy took his findings to the producers of the show, with a pitch for a "Superman vs. the Klan" series. Kennedy's timing was impeccable, with the war over and the Nazis no longer a threat, Superman needed a new villain to fight, and the KKK was perfect for the role.
From June 10th until 25th, the multi-part series titled "The Clan of the Fiery Cross" broadcast a total of 16 episodes nationwide. The story followed Jimmy Olsen, the manager of a baseball team. When Jimmy replaced his top pitcher, Chuck with the more talented newcomer, Tommy, 'sorehead' Chuck ends up in with the 'Clan of the Fiery Cross.' The clan volunteer to intimidate the new "insufficiently American" pitcher with things such as burning crosses. Realizing he has a problem, Jimmy takes his issue to Clark Kent, and naturally Superman jumps at the chance to take on the clan.
Huge success and declining Klan membership
Throughout its two week run, "Clan of the Fiery Cross" was enormously successful, and exposed many KKK secrets, including rituals and codewords. Having relied on the fear perpetuated through the mystic surrounding their group, The Adventures of Superman stripped the Klan of that armor, and trivialized their whole organization. Within two weeks of broadcast the Klan's recruitment efforts and membership dried up, and by 1948 people were showing up at Klan rallies simply to mock the once-feared Klan.
While this story sounds far-fetched, it's amazingly totally true, and in the 2005 book Freakonomics, Stetson Kennedy was called "the greatest single contributor to the weakening of the Ku Klux Klan." Pretty impressive, right? It just goes to show the enormous power and reach of comic book characters and pop culture.
You can listen to the first episode of "Clan of The Fiery Cross" below, and the whole series is available on YouTube: