June 10, 1946. It was late afternoon for America, both in wake of the World War II, and in a literal sense, as the summer sun began to dip. Dizzy with excitement as the summer vacation approached, thousands of children plopped down in front of their radios, all for one reason: to hear the exploits of America’s caped crusader, Superman. The massively popular radio serial, The Adventures of Superman, had been on the air since the 1930s, with nearly 4.4 percent of all radios in the country tuning in during its heyday.
At that point, Clark Kent had dealt with all matters of enemies and issues, from Lex Luthor to mining collapses, to prison riots, to space aliens, to Nazis. Little did the children know that the superhero would soon be dealing with a far more homely, far more devious foe.
The episode started innocently enough, with Clark heading off to his reporting job, and his friend Jimmy Olsen holding practice for a junior baseball team he coaches. Two of his players are in an ongoing feud as one of them, Tommy, who is Asian American, has upstaged the other, Chuck with his pitching skills.
As Chuck heads home in a sour mood, his uncle attempts to cheer him up by inviting him to a meeting of “true Americans.” Donning white robes with scorpions on them, Chuck’s uncle, calling himself “the Grand Scorpion” assures the boy that the Clan he is a part of will soon take over and eliminate all who aren’t “True Americans.” They soon hatch a plan to oust Tommy and his Asian American family from the town through threats and violence.
Sound familiar? It’s supposed to. The ongoing serial “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” all but depicted the Ku Klux Klan by another name – and the Man of Steel would be facing them down for their villainous endeavors.
The Klan, y’see, wasn’t always a half-joke that sad old, hateful white men took part in. Well, at least not to the public. Shrouded in secrecy (and those dumb-looking triangular hoods) the group hid themselves behind masks and shady meetings, carrying out lynchings, tarring and featherings and threatening people of color throughout the south. While the war had pulled attention away from the hate group, the 40s and the slow rise of racial inclusivity awakened the sleeping dragon.
This didn’t sit well with southern-born author and activist Stetson Kennedy. He despised the Klan and its activities, and how terrified much of the general population were of invoking their wrath. The organization was practically impenetrable, however, as members hid their identities carefully, and refused to divulge any secrets.
The solution, to Kennedy, was obvious: He would join the Klan, and learn about them from the inside.
Being a white male, this was fairly straightforward. Kennedy was initiated to a local chapter and versed in the secrets of the KKK, all of which he carefully took down and recorded, using a tiny hidden camera to take photos of meetings and documents.
His findings? The Klan was full of a bunch of horrible bigots who wanted to kill people, but who also liked to spend their time giving each other dumb titles like “Grand Cyclops,” coming up with secret handshakes, and other such pointless things. As intimidating as they were, the Klan’s opinion of itself was practically into “cartoonish superhero villain” territory.
This gave Kennedy a brilliant idea.
While he planned to compile his findings into what would later be published in his bestseller “I rode with the Ku Klux Klan” the author pitched an idea to the writer of the Superman radio serial: Make the Klan a new enemy for Supes to fight. With their ridiculous practices exposed to the world, the Klan would surely become laughingstock to America’s public – and their children. Kennedy gladly provided the juicy secrets he had lifted.
The tactic worked. Kids were hooked on the serial, tuning in regularly to hear each installment. The story’s hooded goons soon attracted the attention of Superman after they capture Tommy and attempt to tar and feather him; soon, Jimmy and the editor of Kent’s newspaper, The Daily Planet, are captured as well for publishing not-so-flattering articles about the group. Chuck, feeling remorse for his actions, ends up revealing the location of the clan to the hero, even after being threatened by his bigoted uncle.
Superman, of course, comes in to save the day, and rescues his friends at the very last minute, getting the villains thrown in jail after foiling their plans.
The Klan obviously denounced the serial, but it was too late. The group become a laughingstock across the nation, with people attending meetings just to mock the group, and members resigning out of embarrassment and fear of being outed.
While the serial itself is cheesy, in a 1940s kind of way, it’s also quite well written. You can listen to all 16 parts online – they’re 15 minutes each, so it’ll take you a few hours at most.
All in all, it goes to show the power that a story and a hero can have in the hearts and minds of people. Perhaps if we realize how cartoonish and cruel some hateful people truly are, then we give them less power, and can fight them. Stay tolerant, friends. And, of course, stay weird.
Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.