Superman has fought many evils during his 80 years of existence, from Lex Luthor’s kryptonite robot to Lois Lane’s attempt to become a singer. His bravery and determination have helped him come out the winner every time. However, none of them quite compare to his biggest victory: the time he defeated the Ku Klux Klan.
The KKK’s Media-Driven Rebound
At the start of the 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan had become defunct – another relic of a very tumultuous post-Civil War era. That changed in part due to a romanticized view of the old south driven in large part by books and film. 1905 saw the publication of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, which painted the Reconstruction Era as a political conspiracy against white voters. 1915 saw the release of Birth of a Nation, a film that borrowed heavily from The Clansman and which portrayed the KKK as vigilante heroes.
This romanticized view of the Klan led to the rebirth of the organization which not only embraced the anti-black rhetoric of its predecessor but also added hate crimes against Roman Catholics, Jews, and foreigners to the mix.
The bigotry and fear that rekindled the KKK was already lurking in the hearts of many Americans. However, the sympathetic portrayals of the Klan in books and film lent a mystique that helped potentially reluctant members to fully embrace the terrorist organization. By 1925, the Klan had between 2 million and 5 million members. Entertainment media, even in the early 20th century, was a powerful force.
Fall and Resurgence
As powerful as the KKK was in the 1920s, it couldn’t overcome the Great Depression, leading to its decline through the 1930s and into the 1940s. In 1944, an Atlanta physician named Samuel Green tried to give the Klan one more boost, creating the Association of Georgia Klans.
During this brief resurgence, a journalist named Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Klan, learning its code words and secret rituals with the intent to demystify the terrorist organization. What he learned would eventually be compiled in a book called The Klan Unmasked (though it should be noted that he may have applied liberal amounts of dramatic license), but it first found its way to the public through the radio serial The Adventures of Superman.
When it came to public consciousness, Superman’s popular radio series was arguably more influential than the comics themselves, introducing such staples as Kryptonite and Jimmy Olsen. Throughout the early 1940s, Superman’s main enemy was the Nazis. Following their defeat, the producers needed a new evil for the Man of Steel to fight. That’s where Kennedy came in.
Superman versus the KKK
Kennedy’s findings found their way into the 16-part story The Clan of the Fiery Cross. Superman’s foe in this adventure wasn’t the real KKK, but the similarities were close enough that America got the message. The serial described code words and rituals similar to what the Klan actually used. Just as The Clansman and Birth of a Nation had provided an attractive mystique to the organization, The Adventures of Superman reduced them to what they really were: a bunch of racists dressed in bed sheets.
The KKK was incensed by the broadcast and called for a boycott of Kellogg’s, the show’s biggest advertiser. This only served to underscore the Klan’s impotence – the boycott went nowhere, emphasizing just how little influence the organization really had.
While many other factors helped to ultimately tear apart the KKK, The Adventures of Superman marked an important moment when the entertainment media that had helped give its 20th century incarnation life finally turned against it. Sadly, the Klan still has more than 70 chapters active in the United States as of 2017, but it is still a far cry from where it used to be. And the more people recognize the Klan’s members as the scared, pathetic people they are, the less power the group has.
Images: Tom Bullock, Chronicle of the Cinema, Underwood & Underwood, Alex Spencer