Mythology has played an integral part in the development of human societies since our ancestors first developed the ability to tell stories. Mythology allowed ancients to make sense of a world that was hostile and random. It also gave people ways to relate ideas about morality and how to live a good life.
These days, traditional mythologies are largely relegated to the pages of textbooks, and the mythologies of the large established modern religions have been largely tamed by familiarity or literal interpretations that leech away their rich metaphorical underpinnings. However, humans seem to have a need to tell stories about divine beings fighting cosmic battles against evil. The new mythology, that of the super heroes, largely consists of well-muscled men in brightly colored tights fighting equally garish opponents. From the pages of comic books to the theater to the television, super heroes have become a cultural force to be reckoned with, especially in recent years.
Of these god-like beings, none are as well known as Superman. The champion of truth, justice, and the American way, Superman has been wowing fans with his magnificent feats of strength and courage since Action Comics #1 was released in 1938. Superman has combated a variety of foes in his long career, but perhaps his greatest victory spilled over from the world of fiction into our world when the Man of Steel fought his most dastardly real-life enemy since he battled the Nazis for Uncle Sam: the Ku Klux Klan.
Stetson Kennedy’s superhero origin story
The story of how Superman took on the KKK began with a man by the name of Stetson Kennedy. Born in Florida in 1916, Kennedy grew up in the Jim Crow South, where African Americans were treated as second class citizens due to their skin color. Seeing the gross inequality left a deep impression on Stetson, which was deepened when he took a job in 1937 working for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. There he worked with Zora Neale Hurston, who later wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, traveling around Florida to collect folklore and oral histories. Hurston, obviously a talented writer, was unable to use the front door of the office, and couldn’t even legally travel with Kennedy.
Soon after Kennedy’s work with the WPA, the US was plunged into World War II. Kennedy was kept out of the conflict by a back problem, so he instead fought the Nazis at home by using his writing to shed light on the inequalities in the South that were so similar to the horrific racist ideas espoused by the Nazis. Once the war ended and the Nazis were defeated, Kennedy turned his attention to America’s own homegrown racist group: the KKK.
While today the KKK is not much of a force in America, in Kennedy’s day the Klan was a force to be reckoned with, claiming politicians, police officials, and other important figures among its ranks. In the wake of World War II, the Klan hit a period of rapid growth. Kennedy, seeing a chance to make a difference, decided to infiltrate the racist organization and gather its secrets and stories.
Once he gathered his information, Kennedy approached authorities, but no one was really interested in taking on the Klan. They were too powerful, and too entrenched. Kennedy then hit on a brilliant idea–he approached the producers of The Adventures of Superman, a popular radio serial, and pitched them the idea for a serial where the Man of Steel took on the Klu Klux Klan.
Clan of the Fiery Cross
To understand why Kennedy approached the producers of a Superman radio show with his information, it is critical to know how much of a phenomenon the Man of Steel was at the time. By 1946, Superman comics circulated in the millions, and the radio show of his exploits reached millions more. Superman was the champion of the little guy, who stood against racism, corruption, and stood for “truth, justice, and the American way.” (A phrase that originated on the the Adventures of Superman.) If Americans, especially children, were going to be swayed by any popular character, it would be Superman.
The producers of The Adventures of Superman jumped at the chance to pit Superman against the KKK. What resulted was a 16 part radio serial titled “the Clan of the Fiery Cross.” Though the Klan was not mentioned by name, it was obvious to everyone that the enemies Superman was taking down were the KKK. The show revealed much about the Klan’s activities and beliefs, although contrary to popular belief it did not contain secret codewords and passwords that had Klan leaders scrambling to change their codes.
Even so, the serial was a body blow to the KKK. A secret organization, the Klu Klux Klan depended on secrecy (and violence) to maintain its aura of mystery and fear. Ripping away that secrecy and exposing the Klan for what it was–a club of racists in white sheets–did much to turn away prospective members. Many current members left when they saw their organization had been outed and was now seen as ridiculous in the public eye. There was one story of a man who decided to quit the Klan when he came home to find his son had found his Klan hood, and was playing the bad guy to the neighbor boy’s Superman. After all, who wants to be in an organization that is on Superman’s bad side?
One radio serial cannot end racism and hatred, of course. The Klan still exists, and although it is not as widespread as it once was, it is still a dangerous and rabidly racist organization. But what can be gleaned from this strange episode is that stories are important. They can have a real and lasting impact on the real world. Iconic characters like Superman can be used to sway opinions on critical issues. That is why it is important that the art of story telling, the craft of building compelling characters and worlds for them to inhabit, does not die. It shows the lasting power of mythology. Sometimes, even in a world of science and reason and order, we need Superman to swoop in and save the day.
Bell, J.L. “Five questions for Rick Bowers.” Hbook.com. February 3, 2012. The Horn Book. January 17, 2015. http://www.hbook.com/2012/02/authors-illustrators/interviews/five-questions-for-rick-bowers/
Juddery, Mark. “How Superman Defeated the Ku Klux Klan.” Mentalfloss.com. October 31, 2009. Mental Floss. January 17, 2015. http://mentalfloss.com/article/23157/how-superman-defeated-ku-klux-klan
Sims, Chris. “Ask Chris #221: Superman Takes Down the Clan of the Fiery Cross.” ComicsAlliance.com. November 21, 2014. Comics Alliance. Januuary 17, 2015. http://comicsalliance.com/ask-chris-221-superman-takes-down-the-clan-of-the-fiery-cross/