“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
-George Santayana (The original version is even more chilling these days: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”)
If you’ve been online in the past few days you’ve probably seen the headlines about Captain America battling former KKK leader David Duke on Twitter (like this one, or this one, or this one, which has the best side-by-side photo comparison). I’m Team Evans in this fight, of course, and have enjoyed watching him take on the awfulness that is Duke. But thanks to a blog post on one of my favorite celebrity gossip websites, LaineyGossip.com, I learned that this isn’t the first time a superhero has taken on the KKK.
The KKK was formed in 1865 in Tennessee in the wake of the Civil War by former Confederate soldiers. This first effort, while terrorizing formerly enslaved people, also targeted Northern judges, teachers, and politicians. Its violence and internal strife, however, caused the KKK to officially “disband” within just a few years. Its decline was also assisted by a federal law, the Enforcement Act of 1871, which was also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. This law gave the President the authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in an effort to fight the KKK and other white supremacy groups.
Unfortunately, the KKK was down but not out. In 1915, The Birth of a Nation was released (known for both its rampant racism and because it was the first 12-reel movie in America). It depicted the Klan as a heroic force (gag), inspiring a William J. Simmons to resuscitate the KKK.
This version of the Klan was shaped by the xenophobic fears many Americans had as a result of the wave of immigrants coming to America at that time, many of whom were Catholic or Jewish. So the KKK focused its animosity not just on African-Americans, but also Catholic and Jewish people. By some accounts, at its peak in the ’20s, the Klan had over 4 million members. By the end of the decade, however, the national Klan structure collapsed, leaving local KKK units independent (with one of the most powerful, in Indiana, run by a serial rapist).
By the end of the second World War, the KKK was in decline. The last of the universally recognized Imperial Wizards, Dr. Samuel Green, died in 1949. While this period in between the rise of the second wave of the Klan and the Klan’s mobilization in response to the Civil Rights Movement was already in a downswing, there were two men — one fictional, one real — and one radio program who helped the downfall of the KKK in the Forties.
From 1940 to 1951, The Adventures of Superman was a popular radio serial, airing 2,088 original episodes during its decade-plus run. During this same time, Stetson Kennedy, a civil rights activist (distantly related to the hat maker), had infiltrated the KKK in order to take it down from the inside. He was inspired, he said, to fight racial terrorism at home because a medical condition had prevented him from fighting in World War II.
Kennedy fed information about the KKK — their activities, their code names — to the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, the Anti-Defamation League, and reporters. But he wanted to do more and realized that Superman could help him. Approaching the producers of the Superman radio program, he proposed a story line in which Superman battled the Klan. The producers agreed, needing a villain to replace Hitler post-WW II, and the “Clan of the Fiery Cross” arc was born:
In the story line, Jimmy Olsen coaches a baseball team. He replaces his top pitcher with a newcomer. The replaced pitcher is angry and is an easy target for the Clan of the Fiery Cross, who offers to intimidate the new pitcher with burning crosses for not being “American” enough. Over sixteen episodes, Superman takes on and defeats the Klan, whose code words and rituals are mocked and demystified in the process.
How much credit Kennedy and Superman deserve for harming the Klan in the ’40s is still a matter of debate, but there can be no dispute that they were fighting on the side of right and they caused harm to the KKK.
Sadly, even Superman couldn’t eradicate the KKK completely and independent KKK groups continued to actively fight against the Civil Rights Movement. It was former KKK members, for example, who were responsible for the terrorist bombing on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four girls in 1963. Even late into the 20th Century, KKK groups continued to be active, focusing their terrorism on a number of groups, including Hispanics and homosexuals.
Which brings us back full circle. Superman fought an imaginary Ku Klux Klan back in the 1940s, seriously damaging the KKK in real life. Unfortunately, what’s old is new again and, once again, we have a superhero doing battle with a Klansman. Hopefully for the last time.