Friday, February 26, 2016
Recommended Reading for 2/26: Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan
The title of this book and this post, if you are unfamiliar with the history of it, paints a very vivid picture. You can see Superman, the man of steel, swooping down and grabbing the white garbed members of the racist Ku Klux Klan and taking away their weapons, tying them up, and leaving them for the authorities. And while a remarkably satisfying fantasy, that is sadly not how life works in the real world, and not what this book is about. This book is non-fiction, about the dawn of comic books, the dawn of the Klan, and how they came to intersect in 1946, when the Adventures of Superman radio show aired a series of episodes aimed to teach kids about tolerance and about what was wrong about the KKK.
Rick Bowers book, a YA book geared for middle shcool on up, has two narratives that run separately for the first two-thirds of the book. The first is well trod territory for comic book scholars and fans: the story of Jerry Siegel, Joe, Schuster, and the creation of Superman. The story of two kids from Cleveland and how they came up with the iconic hero is a story of the American dream, but Bowers does also get into Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, the men behind what would become DC Comics, and some of their less positive traits. There are lots of books that discuss this stuff, I've read more than one, but Bowers presents in a quick, concise form that doesn't get bogged down and gives readers who don't know these stories of the Golden Age of Comics a good entry into them (if you're interested in knowing more about this aspect of comic history, I couldn't recommend Gerard Jones's Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book highly enough).
The the narrative is the story of the Ku Klux Klan, and of Stetson Kennedy, a writer who stood against them. In case you're unfamiliar with the KKK, they are an American society dedicated to racial and religious purity; this means white, Protestant men. They wore white cloaks and hoods, and since the inception of the society in the wake of the American Civil War, have been responsible for uncountable numbers of acts of racial and religious oppression, including harassment, assault, and murder.
Stetston Kennedy was a southern writer and civil rights advocate, who worked for Roosevelt's New Deal collecting stories of workers in Florida, as well as many other writing projects over the years, usually aimed at calling out racists and bigots of all stripes. Bowers does point at the Kennedy was a shameless self-promoter, so often his own stories inflated his own roles in his stories of going undercover in organizations like the KKK, but he was still an engaging figure who did put his life on this line, and whose work with the Anti-Defamation League helped provide inside data on the KKK that was used in 1946.
In 1946, in the wake of World War II, the Adventures of Superman radio show needed new villains and a new direction, so producer Robert Maxwell decided to try to give the series a message, to make it educational: he wanted to use the radio show to talk about tolerance. And after an arc that was a success, featuring a former Nazi spy as the villain, he moved on to a more present threat: the resurgent Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Working with the Anti-Defamation League, who provided intelligence by way of Kennedy and other Klan infiltrators, "The Knights of the Burning Cross," shed light not just on the racism and ignorance of the KKK, but the avarice and disingenuous nature of its leaders.
While the material is heavy and dark, and is never handled with anything but the utmost respect, Rick Bowers prose style and is light and easy to read. While the narrative of the first two third of the book bounce back and forth between the comics business and the life and death stakes of the history of the KKK and its repeated rises and falls across the American landscape, neither narrative is lost in the other. And Bowers does his best to balance the more fantastic assertions made by Kennedy, about his sole responsibility for the intelligence, and the wonderfully sentimental but far from factual idea that Superman alone put the Klan back in its grave (if temporarily) in the late 40s.
On a personal note, there was something in the book that really impacted me. I'm a born New Jersey Jew, about as liberal as they come. I look around and I live in what I view as a predominantly blue state with many progressive people, vastly outnumbering the voices of hate. I know intellectually that isn't true, but part of what gets me through the night is thinking I live in a place that isn't all that bad. What I had sort of known, but never really read, was the KKK's largest bastion in the North during the 40s was in New Jersey, and it also headquartered the US Bund, the American wing of the Nazi Party, and that the KKK and the Bund had massive joint rallies in New Jersey before the war really broke out.
I think in the time where superheroes are big business, and a big business that seems increasingly aimed at an adult audience, we can forget the power the superhero has with kids. The story of Superman being used as a way to teach kids about accepting people for their character, and not their race or religion is something the people who produce Superman for the media should remember. To know what the Man of Steel once did, well there's some learning from history to be done here.
Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.