We all know that Superman generally battles evildoers in the fictional city of Metropolis. If you watched the disappointing, overcranked Man of Steel earlier this year, you remember that his nemesis was General Zod.
It’s a little weird to learn that not all of his enemies are make-believe. There was a time when the popular Kryptonian was deployed to sideline a very real threat in the United States: namely, the Ku Klux Klan.
Our story begins with an intrepid young folklorist and activist from Florida named Stetson Kennedy. He noticed that the Klan was experiencing a resurgence—as an example, a few weeks after V-J Day, the Klan burned a 300-foot cross on the face of Stone Mountain near Atlanta (!)—one Klansman later said that the gesture was intended “to let the n*ggers know the war is over and that the Klan is back on the market.”
The fiercely committed Kennedy decided to infiltrate the group and expose its secrets. He was quite successful in this—for example, he learned that when a traveling Klan member wanted to find other Klansmen in an unfamiliar part of the country, he would ask for a “Mr. Ayak”—“Ayak” standing for “Are You a Klansman?” The desired response was “Yes, and I also know a Mr. Akai”—“A Klansman Am I.”
When he took his information to the local authorities, he found, much to his surprise, little inclination to act on his findings: The Klan had become powerful enough that even the police were hesitant to take action against it.
Eventually he realized that he needed a different approach. In the 1940s, Superman was a radio sensation—children all over the country were following his exploits ravenously. Kennedy decided to approach the makers of the radio serial to see if they would be interested in an epic “Superman vs. the Klan” plotline. He learned that they were interested in such a thing.
Stetson Kennedy under cover
In a funny way, Kennedy’s needs and the needs of the Superman radio writers coincided. Superman had spent the war fighting the likes of Hitler and Hirohito, but in 1946 that was a dead letter, and they were on the lookout for fresh villains.
On June 10, 1946, a Superman plotline began bearing the title “Clan of the Fiery Cross.” The episodes were broadcast daily, so the 16th and final episode appeared on June 25. In the story, Jimmy Olsen is managing a baseball team, but when he replaces his top pitcher with a more talented newcomer, the sorehead kid who has lost his slot ends up in the clutches of the “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” who volunteer to intimidate the “insufficiently American” star pitcher with burning crosses and the like. Jimmy Olsen (of course) takes the issue to Clark Kent, and in short order the Man of Steel is taking on the men in white hoods.
Over the course of about two weeks, the shows exposed many of the KKK’s most guarded secrets, including code words and rituals. The Klan relied a great deal on an inscrutable air of menace and mystery, and the Superman serial stripped the Klan of that mystique utterly. Almost overnight, the Klan’s recruitment efforts began drying up completely.
How successful was Kennedy in his efforts to take down the Klan? In their 2005 hit book Freakonomics, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt called Kennedy “the greatest single contributor to the weakening of the Ku Klux Klan.”
There is a much bigger story here than can adequately be covered in a post like this—there’s a great deal of information out there. Stetson Kennedy seems to have been a genuinely remarkable person, and his Wikipedia page lists a lot of resources if you want to learn more. A good resource is Richard Bowers’ Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate.
All sixteen of the Klan-related episodes of the Superman radio serial are on YouTube, complete with innumerable advertisements for Kellogg’s PEP cereal—the first two are linked below, and you know how to find the others.
“Clan of the Fiery Cross,” episode 1 of 16 (June 10, 1946):
“Clan of the Fiery Cross,” episode 2 of 16 (June 11, 1946):