So it’s 1940s, and over in the US the Ku Klux Klan is experiencing something of a revival. The Second World War is over, and without the threat of Hitler and Hirohito to unite the country, the old tensions are resurfacing. Atlanta has become the capital of the Klan’s secret society, and while it isn’t keeping up the membership explosion it experienced in the 1920s, the migration of around 5 million Africa-Americans away from the southern states would seem to at least partially indicate that the Klan is still an influential force.
Not everyone is down with this, of course. Enter Stetson Kennedy, folklorist and journalist, moral crusader and buddy of Woody Guthrie. During his time as Southern correspondant for a liberal newspaper, Kennedy carried out a number of undercover exposes on the Klan and the Jim Crow laws (leading to the publication of his 1954 book I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan, a partially novelised retelling of his experiences during the forties). However, none of this seems to be dealing the Klan quite the body blow Kennedy would like to deliver…
While all this is going on, Superman is making an impact on radio. The Adventures of Superman ran from 1940 to 1951 and became pretty influential, introducing Jimmy Olsen, Perry White and Kryptonite to the mythos. Played by Bud Collyer, the success of the show and the popularity of the character lead to Superman being characterised and promoted as a defender of tolerance and equal rights (it’s an element that’s downplayed in the current versions of the character, but the Golden Age Superman was a popualist defender of the oppressed, going after wife beaters, child abusers and corrupt businessmen). However, the War’s over, and now Supes can no longer fight Hitler – where’s his next serious threat?
Stetson Kennedy would help to provide a new nemesis for the immigrant from Krypton. While he’d succeeded in gathering a huge amount of information on the Klan, it wasn’t having the desired effect of destroying the organisation. A new tactic was needed – what’s the best way of crippling a secret society? Answer – expose all their secrets.
And so Kennedy gets in touch with the producers of The Adventures of Superman, suggesting a story where Superman goes toe-to-toe with the Ku Klux Klan. As an added incentive, Kennedy provided the writers with genuine Klan passwords and rituals, leading to 1946′s Clan of the Fiery Cross storyline (available here). Suddenly the Klan’s mystique was on the wane – a secret society can’t easily survive being forced into the mainstream. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner suggest in Freakonomics (in a chapter that was the inspiration for this post) that this dissemination, alongside other shows doing similar things, was a major factor in a decline in the group’s fortunes, noting that: "Although the Klan would never quite die…it was cerainly handicapped, at least in the short term, by Kennedy’s brazen dissemination of inside information. While it is impossible to tease out the exact impact that his work had on the Klan, many people have given him a great deal of credit for damaging an institution that was in grave need of being damaged."
Life moved on. Kennedy went on to run for Governor in his home state of Florida (with campaign song written by Woody Guthrie), and in 1954, Fredric Wertham used his infamous anti-comic book treatise The Seduction of the Innocent to claim that Superman was un-American, fascist and bringing Nietzche into the classroom. Only eight years later, and already the world was forgetting how a strange visitor from another planet helped break the power of the Klan. Yet this footnote in pop-culture history is worth remembering; somehow it’s a very Superman story.