Friday, December 21, 2012

Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan by Rick Bowers

On February 5, 1946, The Adventures of Superman radio program opened with a new introduction:

Yes, it’s Superman.  Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities farbeyond those of mortal men.  Superman, defender of law and order, champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice!

This announced the beginning of the radio Superman’s struggle with post-war social issues, especially a campaign against racial and religious intolerance.  In this adventure, Jimmy Olsen infiltrated the Guardians of America, a fictional stand-in for pro-Nazi groups that were operating in the United States at the time.  This was only the beginning.  Later that year, Adventures would feature a 16-episode story in which Superman took on the Clan of the Fiery Cross, a stand-in for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Behind these fictional stories of Superman were real-life adventures.  The KKK was attempting to launch a new national membership drive, playing on the insecurities people felt after World War II.  There were real infiltrators of the KKK and other organized hatemongers who exposed the workings of these organizations in the media.  Rick Bowers tells the story of these men and the producers of the comic book and radio Superman in Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan.

Superman had been dealing with cultural concerns from his beginning.  When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Jewish high-school students in Cleveland, created Superman in the 1930s, they pitted him against criminal gangs and crooked politicians.  As Nazi Germany began to rise as an aggressive European power, the hero opposed Nazis at home and abroad.  During the war, he protected the home front.   Though it is not the focus, Bowers describes how Superman has changes with the concerns of the times.

The Klan has roots going back to the Reconstruction era after the Civil War.  It started as a jokey order of former Confederate Army officers in Tennessee who imitated the mystery religion-inspired fraternal orders that were popular at colleges, with mysterious rituals and strange names.  It spawned imitators that secretly gathered in Nashville to organize themselves in 1867.  Former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was the first Grand Wizard, who lead the Klan in opposition to Reconstruction, including domestic terrorism against blacks and white proponents of racial equality and Reconstruction policies.  The violence of the Klan members, called Ghouls, eroded the organization’s popularity.

William J. Simmons launched a campaign to revive the Klan, taking it national in 1920.  For Simmons it was largely a moneymaking scheme, though he seemed happy to promote intolerance of blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants and anyone else who wasn’t a white, male Protestant.  (I’m a white, male Protestant and I find nothing in Protestantism, or Christianity in general, that justifies the intolerance promoted by the Klan.)  Successors led the Klan to political activism in the 1920s, and it became very powerful, but front-line violence and leadership hypocrisy undermined their position.  The post-war membership campaign, led by Samuel Green who was Grand Dragon of the Georgia Realm, was thwarted by law enforcement and equal rights advocates with help of medial like Adventures.

The library helpfully labeled Bowers’ book with a sticker that reads, “TEEN.”  I suppose it is a young adult book, though I think it is within the grasp of many middle school students.  It is an unusual introduction to the history of bigotry in American and the movements that promoted equality, but the tie to a popular superhero might make the subject more appealing to kids in school.  It made me pick up the book, and I’m far passed my school days.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Bowers, Rick.  Superman versus the Ku Klux KlanWashington, DC: National Geographic, 2012.