"Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of how the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate" Rick Bowers, National Geographic 160 pages, 2012. (8 out of 10)
I don't think I can say that Superman has ever been my favorite superhero--I've always preferred the adventures of Batman and Robin to the Man of Steel. But he is the paragon of superheroes. The best of the best. Whether you're talking about his origin, his powers, or his enemies, Superman set the standard for all others, beginning in 1938. I've always found that Golden Age of superheroes fascinating--their creation, and the historical ingredients in the 1930s and 1940s that fostered their popularity. Plus I'm a history teacher. So when I saw the book "Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of how the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate" on a recommended reading list, my interest was piqued. I first read this in 2012 when it was published; sadly, recent events on our national stage have caused me to revisit it.
Richard Bowers' 2012 book is intended for young readers--probably grades 5-8--but was an interesting read for me. There are four parts: "The Birth of Superman" is a history of the invention of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Two kids from Cleveland who are both escapists who loved science fiction and pulp magazines who ended inventing the modern superhero. Bowers describes their influences and goals well; I've read accounts of this process in a dozen or so books, and this is a good treatment. Thorough enough to place the reader in the time period, letting them see that the Superman of history was somewhat more and less than he is today. Bowers shifts topics with part two. "Emerging from the Shadows" is essentially the history of the KKK, beginning just after the end of the Civil War in a response to Reconstruction, the decline in power shortly thereafter, and then the renewal of the Klan in the 20th Century. Even as a history teacher much of this was new to me, and I found it fascinating and repugnant at the same time. It's a great primer on how the ideology of hate gave power to the weak and cowardly and stupid, and how that organization used its power to promote terror. "Juggernaut" brings us back to the Man of Steel. This section is about Superman's success in the comic books and on the radio, and how the publishers handled commercialization of the Man of Tomorrow. All of this, combined with the end of World War II and the loss of some of his best enemies (Nazis and Japanese) put Superman in a prime position to confront hate at home.
The fourth part of Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan is "Collision." This is the real meat of the book; everything else has been leading up to this. The producers of the Adventures of Superman radio series signed off on a series of stories that would have Superman fighting domestic hate groups at home. With the support of the anti-KKK crusader Stetson Kennedy, the Anti-Defamation League and others providing essential information about how the KKK recruited followers, they had material. It's remarkable to see what the courage of one man accomplished. Could he get the backing of national organizations to take on the Klan? It takes a lot of balls to stand up to entire markets, even if you're doing so to serve a higher moral authority. If a company could make a buck on selling sheets to the KKK, or the Confederate flag to hate groups, would they risk losing that dollar? The producers of the radio show gave it a shot. With the backbone of their sponsors at Kelloggs willing to lose a few sales, they had the support they needed. Everything was aligned for the collision to happen. When it did, first in the series The Hate Mongers Organization (a test to see how audiences would respond), and then with a more pointed series "The Clan of the Fiery Cross," children and adults loved the series.
I like the old radio serials. I've listened to most of the Superman and Batman series, and after you get used to the storytelling style and acting techniques, they become as much a part of these characters' histories as the comics, television series, and movies you're probably more familiar with. YouTuber cstevengomez has put all 16 parts of "The Clan of the Fiery Cross" online; the first episode is below.
Bowers is careful to explain that this few weeks of radio programming didn't end the KKK; there was another resurgence of the Klan a decade later in the South, and there are still pockets of hate in the Klan and other similar organizations across the United States. But for a generation of children, they got the message that the intolerance of the KKK wasn't something virtuous--it was evil. And if Superman, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen could stand up to it, so could they.
This was a great book, a quick easy read for adults, but also an interesting one. Even though there wasn't much about the Superman side of things I didn't already know, the history of the KKK was fairly new to me. It was gratifying to see the creators of the Superman radio series invigorated with their new mission. Do corporations today have the same courage to stand up to bigotry? It's interesting to see how some things have changed over the last 75 years, and how some have sadly stayed the same.