“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap the Ku Klux Klan in a -“ wait a minute, wait a minute. That’s not how it goes…or is it? Well, not exactly, but criminal mastermind Lex Luthor wasn’t always the most sinister villain to face the Man of Steel. No, there was a time when Superman took on an evil that transcended the fantasy world of comics and emerged victorious. That’s not to say he didn’t have help. In fact, the story of the mere mortal who was behind that victory is truly the stuff of legend.
In the 1940’s following the end of World War II, the Ku Klux Klan was experiencing something of a revival in the United States. Emboldened and seemingly extra violent, their activities were not limited to clandestine meetings throughout the South. As the Klan began to creep ever forward from the shadows, a daring young man decided to take matters into his own hands. Enter, Stetson Kennedy, an American author, journalist, folklorist, and self-styled human rights activist. An opponent of the Jim Crow system he had witnessed growing up, he crafted a plan to expose and destroy the Klan, by infiltrating it. In 1946, Kennedy joined the Alabama KKK, for the purpose of gaining as much information as possible about the organization in order to supply what learned to the police and governmental agencies who he hoped would bring the Klan to its knees. Surprisingly, Kennedy found that his attempt at assisting law enforcement was rebuffed by those in charge, who wanted no part of the information he had accumulated. Like any good hero though, Kennedy didn’t let this unexpected turn of events deter him from doing the right thing. Instead, he devised a new plan. (source)
During the Forties, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more accessible form of entertainment than the radio serial. Day after day and night after night, families gathered around the radio to listen to dramatic and comedic programs sponsored by various products of the day. One of the most popular of these radio serials was The Adventures of Superman, which began airing in 1940. Just two years earlier, the Man of Steel had made his wildly successful debut in Action Comics #1. Now, the enthusiasm for the Last Son of Krypton had found a home in radio, where it alternately ran up to five times a week for 15 minutes per episode. Its family friendly air time in the 5 o’clock hour along with Kellogg’s as its trusted sponsor ensured a vast audience. Stetson Kennedy was keenly aware of the power that emanated from that particular radio signal and he was determined to harness it. He approached the creators of The Adventures of Superman with the idea of developing a storyline where Superman would take on a KKK-like organization. The story itself would utilize authentic information, secrets, language, code words and rituals employed by the actual Klan. The goal was to demystify the KKK while exposing all of their private secrets. Unlike the law enforcement agencies he had approached, the producers of the radio show, who were actually in a creative slump with respect to villains to do battle with Superman, welcomed the idea instantaneously. (source)
In 1946 the first of a 16 part serial produced with the information provided by Kennedy aired. “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” had Superman do battle with a racist hate group based entirely on the actual KKK. The effects to the Klan were felt across the organization. By trivializing the KKK’s rituals and secrets, recruitment was dealt a resounding blow. The Klan might’ve weathered the storm by simply ignoring the radio show but instead, it drew additional attention to itself by calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s products. The backlash against the Klan manifested itself with record ratings for the story arc and increased sales of Kellogg’s products. In their 2005 book, Freakonomics, authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt called Kennedy “…the greatest single contributor to the weakening of the Ku Klux Klan.” Although to be fair, they did express some doubt as to Kennedy’s anecdotes as they were all relayed by the activist himself. (source)
Despite whatever self-aggrandizement imputed to Kennedy, there can be no doubt that the story of his team up with the Man of Steel is incredibly fascinating. In fact, it’s so interesting that it was adapted into a young reader’s novel by author Richard Bowers in 2012, aptly entitled, Superman Versus The Ku Klux Klan. That book is now, in turn, being developed for the big screen by Lotus Entertainment and PaperChase Films. As it should, the story will focus on the real hero, Stetson Kennedy with Superman playing an important, although supporting role via his radio program. Somehow, I don’t think the fictional hero would mind turning the spotlight over to the brave mortal who took on one of the most feared hate groups in history. One might say Kennedy’s work embodied “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. (source)