Superman’s first nemeses weren’t supervillains like Lex Luther or Darkseid. When the Man of Steel debuted in 1938, he dedicated himself to combating corrupt businessmen, crooked politicians, drug lords and other real world ills. Then, in 1941, the U.S. thrust itself into World War II, giving the iconic character—and his comic contemporaries—a foreign foe to fight in the form of Nazi baddies and other Axis enemies.
By this point, Superman had already expanded from simple comics to pre-movie cartoons and radio. But it was the latter media that proved most popular and accessible, and it was through radio that the Man of Steel kept American children most riveted. Once the Allies won the war, however, there was a void to fill. But Superman’s radio producers and his corporate sponsors found inspiration here in the States, where hate groups were growing increasingly vocal and brazen in their bigoted ways.
After dying out a bit in the late 1930s, the post-war atmosphere allowed the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations to start flourishing again in the American South. As they spread in the South as well as the North, and intolerant violence began to shake the nation, producers of the “Superman” radio show knew they had to address the frightening trend, setting the stage for an April 1946 serialized storyline called “The Hate Mongers Association,” in which Superman took on the xenophobic and racist “Guardians of America.”
Wendy L. Wall offers a summary of the tale in her book, “Inventing the ‘American Way’: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement:” “The Guardians were trying to prevent an interfaith council in Metropolis from constructing a community clubhouse and gymnasium ‘for the use of all boys and girls in the neighborhood, regardless of race, creed or color.’”
As part of their discriminatory crusade, the Guardians set fire to a local Jewish pharmacy. Superman instantly knew trouble was around the bend. “Their game is to stir up hatred among all of us,” his alter ego, reporter Clark Kent, told friend Jimmy Olsen. “It’s a dirty vicious circle, and like Hitler and his Nazi killers, they plan to step in and pick up the marbles while we’re busy hating one another…”
“It’s an old trick but for some reason a lot of us still fall for it,” he warned. But of course good eventually triumphed over anti-American evil, setting Superman and his friends on the path to true activism.
Stetson Kennedy in the garb he wore while investigating the KKK.
As Superman and his friends shifted their attention to hate mongers here at home, activist and author Stetson Kennedy was hard at work infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. Teaming up with a disgruntled former Klan member named “John Brown,” Kennedy successfully chronicled the inner-workings of a Stone Mountain, Georgia, KKK branch. The information they gathered was subsequently funneled to Superman’s writers, who in turn used it as the basis for their next anti-racist story, June 1946′s “The Clan of the Fiery Cross.” (After coming forward as the mole, Kennedy became a civil rights hero, wrote books about his experience and made a failed attempt to run for governor in Florida. Woodie Guthrie wrote his campaign song.)
An obvious take-off of the real KKK, The Clan of the Fiery Cross concerned a hate group that hoped to break up Metropolis’ multiracial Unity House baseball team. Their first attack was against a Chinese player named Tommy Lee. The bigots, led by a man named Matt Riggs and adorned in white hooded robes, soon make their presence known all over town, including planting a bomb on Tommy’s bike and later kidnapping him. They also seize Daily Planet editor Perry White and reporter Jimmy Olsen. No one, it seemed, was safe from their terrifying hate. And that was the point: the producers wanted listeners to realize their own liberties were in danger, and that they too could fight KKK-type groups.
“It was critical that the script go beyond Superman heroics to make the point that ordinary people can stand up to hate,” Richard Bowers writes in his recently released book, “Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate.”
As Bowers explains, Perry White played a pivotal role in delivering this defiant message by writing an editorial castigating the Clan of the Fiery Cross. “I just hope this country realizes the threat posed by those lunatics in nightshirts,” employing the ridicule that proved integral to demystifying the real life Klan, just as it has with today’s al-Qaeda.
“I happen to love my country and what it stands for: equal rights for all Americans, regardless of what church they choose to worship God in or what color skin God gave them,” he says. “The United States was founded on that principle and we just fought a second world war to preserve it. You and others like you [Clansmen], with your diseased minds, want to tear down what we’ve built and fought to keep.”
“But you can’t do it. I’ll fight you to my last breath and so will every other American worth his salt.”
Bower also points out that the “Superman” writers made clear the Clan — aka: the KKK — were about making money more than anything. At one point, the Clan’s “Grand Imperial Mogul” tells diehard racist leader Matt Riggs, “Is it possible that you actually believe all that stuff about getting rid of foreigners?”
“You’ve become drunk on the slop we put up for the suckers… I’m running a business, Riggs, and so are you. We deal with one of the oldest and most profitable commodities on earth — hate.” The Clan story ended up being a huge ratings hit, and brought fresh attention, as well as unprecedented praise, to the children’s program.
Real life Ku Klux Klan members were furious over the broadcasts. Superman writers received death threats; white supremacist Gerald LK Smith, leader of the Christian Nationalist Crusade and supporter of legendarily racist Senator Strom Thurmond, said the Clan of the Fiery Cross storyline proved Superman to be a “disgrace to America;” and the KKK proper tried to organize a boycott against Superman’s main advertiser, Kellogg’s cereal.
Kellogg’s, high on national praise for the well-received Superman story, was undeterred. In fact, they were instrumental in helping launch the Clan and other socially conscious stories in the first place.
Though it was Superman’s writers and producers who actually made the Man of Steel fight bigotry, they never could have done it without their sponsors’ support. And they had it, because companies at the time were just starting to understand the importance of a newly-established tactic, “socially conscious advertising.”
Wall writes, “Superman’s recruitment into the fight for the ‘American Way’ — an American Way built around notions of tolerance and teamwork — reflected a shift in strategy on the part of some in America’s business community.”
[The public] had long lobbied producers of comic strips and children’s radio shows to make their fare more socially conscious, generally with little success. In late 1945, however, William B. Lewis, radio director at the Kenyon & Eckhardt advertising agency, latched onto the idea as a way of showing that ‘the interests of the community and those of a commercial advertiser’ were not incompatible.
Kenyon & Eckhardt had the Kellogg Co. account, and Lewis set Superman director Robert Maxwell to work on the idea. In crafting their story line for “The Hate Mongers Association,” Maxwell consulted with experts ranging from Margaret Mead to officials at the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Meanwhile, Lewis sold the idea to Kellogg Co. executives.
Yes, there were other factors at play here — Superman’s Jewish creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had always intended on their hero to fight intolerance — but these socially conscious story lines never would have aired had it not been for corporate sponsors at Kellogg’s. And, as Wall explains, the company soon began “including short talks on tolerance” before the Superman episodes, which increasingly found Superman battling new bigoted villains, like the Knights of the White Carnation, another group that resembled the KKK.
Superman would be firmly established on television by 1951, announced by a narrator who declared the Kryptonian was dedicated to “a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way.” And that American Way was shaped, as surprising as it may be, by American corporations.
Today, as the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to fight economic inequality, let’s remember that while many corporations are indeed interested only in their own bottom line, some have also been a powerful force in fighting hatred that poses as much a threat to the nation as a recession. And they still do: In the realm of LGBT rights, for example, companies like Starbucks, Nike and Apple have all come out in support of, and donated to, marriage equality.
Even if 40s-era Kellogg’s simply wanted to raise their profile and political prestige with the Superman show, their actions back in the day helped deliver to the States a symbol of equality and tolerance that has proven essential in teaching generations what it truly means to be an American, and deserve at least a little recognition for shaping a hero that still represents the best of this nation’s ideals.