I said a few posts ago that I was reading book called Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan, by Rick Bowers. I finally found the time to sit down and finish it.
The world’s first superhero, Superman, was created in the early 1930s by two teenage boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. From the start, he was created as a champion for the oppressed. Both Siegel and Shuster came from Jewish immigrant families and knew what it was like to be outcasts they created a character who also knew what that was like, but could fight for those people as well. They masterfully created a character that so many people in the depression could connect with.
In 1938, Siegel and Shuster sold Superman to Detective Comics, Inc. (today known as DC Comics) and he quickly became an overnight sensation. Every other superhero in pop culture today exists as a result of Superman. Within two years, he had his own radio show, The Adventures of Superman, a syndicated program for children that broadcasted across the country. During the first half of the 1940s, the stories were focused on World War II and Superman’s battles with Nazis, German scientists, and evil dictators. When the war ended, the producers of the radio show were looking for a new battle for Superman.
At the same time, activist and journalist Stetson Kennedy had infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and was looking for someone to sell their secrets to. Because of the influence of the Klan at the time, no one was really interested in his story until he approached the producers of The Adventures of Superman. Kennedy worked with the writers to create a story in which the exposed the Klan’s rituals, recruitment tactics, and bigoted beliefs.
In a 16-episode story, Superman battled the Clan of the Fiery Cross, a fictional version of the Klan that was just as evil and violent. A young Chinese-American boy is harassed, kidnapped, and about to be killed by the Clan before being saved by Superman. Perry White of The Daily Planet publishes an article condemning the Clan, and is also kidnapped, along with Jimmy Olsen. The two men stand up the Clan, stating they refuse to give into bigotry. Before they can be executed, Superman once again swoops in to save the day and the Clan is finished. The whole story is on YouTube so click here if you want to listen.
While Superman was battling the fictional Clan of the Fiery Cross, in real life children across the country were learning about the evils of bigotry and the Ku Klux Klan. Leaders of the Klan were on edge because their secrets were being exposed and the general public began to view them as a joke. While Superman isn’t solely responsible, the Klan fell to the wayside within a few years, and they’re membership dropped drastically.
Superheroes are a more than just fun fictional characters that are in our comics and movies. They are a cultural phenomena that people have used throughout history to reflect and fight the issues of the day. To learn more about the history of superheroes and how they have deeply impacted our history, watch Superheroes Decoded, a two part documentary from the History Channel. Click here