Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
I hate hate. This should be pretty self-explanatory. Organized hate is as alien to me as a semi-solid intelligent fungus, living in the vacuum of space, I can’t understand how it exists. I look at torch wielding neo-Nazi’s in Southern Carolina surrounding a synagogue, chanting, “The Jew will not replace us.” And I shake my head and say, ‘this isn’t my America.” Then I am flabbergasted when people who are basically good defend them. Of my many faults, this disdain for hate is something that is pretty positive about me.
Less obvious is that I am not a huge Superman fan. Sure, he is THE superhero, maybe that is why I never grooved to his tune. He is too perfect, to much a Mary Sue. The writers need to keep making over the top villains and monsters to be a challenge to him. But this true story makes me want to stand as a proud American and salute the dude in blue with a red cape. This is the true (if sometimes exaggerated) story about how The Man of Steel took on the Klu Klux Klan.
The Clark Kent of this story is Stetson Kennedy, a folklorist and journalist born in Florida in 1916. Like many southern white children of the time, the day to day aspect of raising him was left to a black maid named Flo. Stetson claimed that he saw Flo tied to a tree and repeatedly raped by white men, when she accused a white bus driver of giving her the wrong change. As a child he learned the world wasn’t fair and that adults “Where lying about more than just Santa Clause.”
He decided that he would do what ever was needed to right the social injustice he saw in the 20th century south. He created an alter ego, a traveling salesmen John S Perkins and infiltrated the KKK. Though he had accumulated quite a bit of evidence on crimes committed by the KKK, local cops didn’t want it. So, he turned his evidence over to the Anti-Defamation League.
Now if Kennedy is the Clark Kent of this story, then Bob Maxwell is it’s Perry White. He was basically given carte blanche to handle everything Superman, in the 40’s. What Bob wanted to do was make it into a radio show and in 1940 launched The Adventures of Superman. He was a perfectionist who insisted that the stories also be entertaining, compelling and have a moral. During World War Two it was easy; the bad guys were the Nazis. After the war he wanted to make Superman more than just a guy who beat his way out of problems. He started with a 25-episode story line called Mongers of Hate. This told the story about a secret society run by ex-Nazi spies. This boosted the show to the number one radio program.
He then turned his eye to the Klan. Now Maxwell was a perfectionist who wanted to portray the Klan as they really were. Some how he got in conduct with the ADL, who gave him Kennedy’s reports. He then had a 16-episode arc written called the Klan of the Fiery Cross.
It tells the story of Jimmy Olsen coaching a peewee softball team, and Chinese immigrant Tommy Lee, replaces white American pitcher Chuck Riggs. Chuck complains to his uncle Matt, who is secretly the leader of the Metropolis Klan of the Fiery Cross, a KKK expy. He then begins to terrorize the Lee’s and any white supporters. Perry white runs articles against the Klan, and is kidnapped along with Jimmy Olsen. Chuck has a change of heart and confess to Superman, who rescues the two in the nick of time.
Matt goes to his superior in the Klan, a man named Wilson and tires to get him to kill everyone who knows he is a member including his nephew. Wilson explains that he doesn’t believe in the concepts of hate, or racial superiority, that to him it is just a business, to make money of prejudiced fools. Matt Rigs is devastated and kills Wilson with his bare hands. He goes to the championship game to kill Tommy but is thwarted by the Man of Steel.
Soon after the Klan began to lose membership and popularity (It is hard to believe it now, but contemporary encyclopedias often included the KK as a legitimate political party of the time). Credit has been given to Kennedy and Superman for bring them down. Though there was many factors and many dedicated law enforcement personnel working on the case.
A lot of myths have come out of these events. It is often said that Kennedy gave Maxwell real authentic Klan codes, he would broadcast it on the air, so the Klan didn’t know if they were dealing with a real member or someone listening to the radio. There are unproven stories about top Klan leaders quitting because their children where making fun of the Klan after they heard the Superman show. There is no evidence that either of these are real.
Let’s face it, the importance of the show in bringing down the popularity of the Klan has been exaggerated over the years. But it is true millions of youth got a chance to see the Klan for what they were, and the importance of that fact cannot be estimated.
One of the reason that this story has been exaggerated is Stetson Kennedy himself. Remember he was a folklorist, so he wasn’t beyond adding details to make a story more exciting. Surprisingly I am Ok with this. If most people have an angel and a devil on their shoulders trying to influence them, I have a little folklorist and a historian on mine arguing for my soul.
And it is not like the guy didn’t risk his life to infiltrate the Klan. In 1957 his testimony put away several key Klan members and the KKK offered a $1.000 a pound bounty on him, forcing him to flee to Geneva. Oral historian Stud Turkle described Stetson as thus. “With half a dozen Stetson Kennedys, we can transform our society into one of truth, grace and beauty…”
So maybe Superman is corny, maybe he is too powerful, maybe he is un-cool. But the story of how Stetson and Superman took on the KKK, makes me believe in “Truth, justice and the American way.”