Update about Episode #111: Who's Who In Action Comics!: Last Saturday I did go to Acme Comics in Longwood, Florida http://acme-superstore.com/ and looked for the Millennium Edition: Action Comics #1. Unfortunately, while it had other Millennium Editions of other significant DC Comics titles, the store did not have the M. E. edition of Action Comics #1.
Since February has been designated Black History Month, I thought this first episode of the month would be a good time to focus on a very small, but notable, role Superman played in the civil rights movement. Gerard Jones, in his book on comic book history Men Of Tomorrow, noted that in the years before WWII, Hollywood studio executives, many of whom were Jewish, were hesitant to produce and release films critical of Germany's Nazi regime. They were afraid of losing the German and Italian movie markets. That would happen anyway with the U. S. entry into the war. The producers of the Superman radio show were not hesitant on tackling social issues of the day in 1946, several decades before DC Comics published stories relevant to the issues of the 1960's.With the end of the war the producers were looking for new antagonists to replace the spies, saboteurs and Axis sympathizers the show used during the war years.
There are several things that are surprising about the radio show's willingness to tackle potentially controversial subjects. The Superman radio show had an audience in the millions, and is considered the top rated juvenille radio show. It was sponsored by one of the top cereal producers, Kellogg's. A common habit of producers of the most popular movies and TV shows is to steer clear of controversy.
In 1946 the radio show broadcast a number of stories about social topics of the day:
-- a group stirred racial tensions in Metropolis to prevent the building of an inter-faith recreation center.
-- a racketeer fostered juvenille delinquency while working with a corrupt mayoral candidate to block a slum clearance and renewal project.
-- a crooked political boss used racial and religious tensions to keep war veterans out of state jobs they had been promised.
The subject of this episode is a story the radio show broadcast from June 10 - July 1, 1946 about the Ku Klux Klan, in the form of the thinly veiled Clan of the Fiery Cross. The episodes of this story exposed actual Klan practices and code words.This information came from an actual Klan infiltrator, Stetson Kennedy, who is still alive at the time of this recording. I'll have more about his background later.
One of the podcasts I subscribe to is a re-release of the Superman radio show. It has not gotten to the episodes mentioned in this episode, so the plot summary I'm using comes from James Lantz's review of this radio show story from the Superman Homepage website (.http://www.supermanhomepage.com/radio/radio.php?topic=radio-reviews/070146-fierycross).
Jimmy Olsen managed a youth baseball team sponsored by Unity House. He had to break up a fight between pitcher Chuck Riggs and Tommy Lee, an Asian-American who replaced Chuck as the team's #1 pitcher. During practice, Chuck crowded the plate and was beaned accidentally by a pitch thrown by Tommy. Chuck believed Tommy did it on purpose, and Jimmy was forced to send Chuck home because of his attitued.
Chuck told his uncle, Matt Riggs, about it. Matt recognized Tommy's last name because his father was promoted to the Metropolis Health Department as a bacteriologist. Uncle Matt convinced Chuck that Tommy did bean him on prupose and took his nephew to a secret meeting of what Matt described as "true Americans". The members at the meeting are dressed like Uncle Matt, a hooded white robe decorated with a blue scorpion design. Matt revealed to Chuck that he was the Grand Scorpion who led the Clan of the Fiery Cross.
A burning cross was placed on the lawn of the Lee house. Tommy wanted to quit the team because of it but Jimmy advised against it. He assured Tommy that he would get Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent to help. Clark conviced Dr. Lee to stay in Metropolis, and promised to get Inspector Henderson to provide police protection. Jimmy and Tommy were leaving together on a bicycle to ride to their next game when Clark's super vision noticed a bomb placed under the bike's seat. With no time to change into Superman, he forced Jimmy and Tommy off the bike and rolled it down the hill before it exploded.
After the Clan learned of the plot's failure, they hatch another plan. They recruit a member of the opposing team, who would make it seem like he lost his grip on his bat so that the bat would hit Tommy on the head. Superman's super speed protected Tommy from the flying bat. Tommy's pitching helped Unity House win the baseball game and a berth in the championship game.
Later a gang of Clan members kidnapped Tommy and knocked out his father. Unknown to them, the crime was witnessed by Chuck who had been riding his bike in the neighborhood. Whatever his past feelings about Tommy, Chuck is concerned enough to call Clark Kent at the Daily Planet. After several attempts he speaks with Clark, and gives his information but not his name. While Superman searched for Tommy, the boy was able to escape from his captors but suffered a broken arm in the process. To help his escape he jumped into a river and was rescued by Superman downstream, before he drowned.
The Daily Planet offered a $1,000.00 reward for any information about the Clan of the Fiery Cross. Riggs expressed his displeasure about the Planet's involvement by having a flaming cross placed on Perry White's lawn. Perry, Clark and Jimmy found White's personal chef beaten and unconscious. Perry had the Planet's reward raised to $5,000.00. He ignored Clark's pleas to have Inspector Henderson provide protection. Perry would regret his decision later, when he and Jimmy were in Perry's car, returning to the Daily Planet offices. His car was run off the road by another vehicle, and they were kidnapped by members of the Clan and taken to a secluded cave. Perry and Jimmy were bound while Riggs returned to Metropolis to get tar, in order to tar and feather them.
In Perry's absence, Clark and Lois publish a special morning edition of the Daily Planet, with a front page notice asking the anonymous boy who called Clark Kent to come forward. Chuck was debating this decision when Uncle Matt returned and threatened him to keep his secret. Chuck's eyes were opened to the fact that Uncle Matt would not even let family ties interfere with his dedication to the Clan of The Fiery Cross.
The Clan members returned to the cave to find Perry and Jimmy getting out of their bonds. There was a brief scuffle, and Perry succeeded in removing Matt's hood, revealing his identity and sealing his own and Jimmy's fates.
Clark Kent finally found the information that lead him to Chuck Riggs. Chuck was scared, but Clark comforted him by telling him that Superman would protect him. The boy aided Superman in finding the secluded cave where the Clan met, but it was already abandoned. The Clan had taken Perry and Jimmy to a glade in order to execute them and bury their bodies. Superman arrived in time to deflect the bullets from Perry and Jimmy, in front of their open graves, and captured the Clan. He took the whole gang to Inspector Henderson, where they discovered that Matt Riggs was still missing.
Riggs had left for Graham City to meet the Grand Imperial Mogul of the Clan of the Fiery Cross. Matt was shocked to learn that the Grand Mogul used hate mongering only for his own profit, and didn't even believe in the tenents of the Clan. Riggs strangled the Grand Mogul and returned to Metropolis to finish off Perry, Jimmy and Tommy. He found them too well protected by the police but devised another plan. He got a sniper rifle and positioned himself looking over the little league field where the Metropolis youth baseball championship game would be played. Perry White was scheduled to hand out the awards to the winner, so all of his targets would be in one place. Clark Kent's super eyes catch an odd reflection of light and, as Superman, captured Matt Riggs.
The Unity House team won the championship. Chuck wanted to give his trophy to Tommy, because he felt unworthy over his treatment of his teammate and what had happened to him. But Perry had an extra trophy made for Tommy, so the whole team went to the hospital to visit their teammate and give him his trophy.
Stetson Kennedy became a Klan infiltrator at the behest of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation during WWII. Kennedy was unable to qulaify for military service because of a back injury. He would ultimately find Klan ties in law enforcement. Klan ties crossed party lines and public institutions, including churches and even Congress. Kennedy would send his evidence to politicians, prosecutors, reproters, or anyone else who he thought would distribute his information. A popular radio personality of the day, Drew Pearson would take Kennedy's notes and read actual minutes of Klan meetings, including code words and rituals, and the names of prominent citizens involved. Some of them were unashamed of their associations, while others were embarrassed to be linked to the Klan. Various source claim that such publicity hurt Klan recruitment and membership.
Kennedy also gave his information to Robert Maxwell, producer of the Sueprman radio show and its later TV incarnation starring George Reeves. That information was woven into the story that would eventually be told on the air.
Stetson Kennedy was born on October 5, 1916 in Jacksonville, Florida and is still alive, as I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, at the time of this recording. Two of his ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence. Another served as a Confederate officer in the Civil War. John Batterson Stetson, the founder of the hat company and the person for whom Stetson University was named after, was another ancestor. Kennedy had a varied career as a writer, folklorist, labor and human rights activist and environmentalist. In 1937 he joined the WPA sponsored Florida Writer's Project, where he worked with folklorist Zora Neal Hurston. Several volumes of Florida folklore were published through the project.
Kennedy's first book, Palmetto Country, published in 1942, used leftover information not used in the WPA editions. His two most famous books on the lu Klux Klan were: Southern Exposure (1946), which is out of print but available from vendors selling through Amazon.com, or possibly used book stores. The second was titled The Klan Unmasked (1954), originally titled I Rode With The Ku Klux Klan. This second book is still in print.
His interest in civil rights may have had a more personal inspriation. When he was a boy his parents employed a black maid, as was a common custom of the day. Kennedy considered the maid, named Flo, as almost a second mother. Flo questioned a white bus driver one day, when he refused to give her back correct change. She paid for her break of etiquette by being tied to a tree, beaten and gang raped by a group of Klansmen. This act of voiolence opened Kennedy's eyes to the brutality of the Klan, exposing their lie as Christian patriots.
Stetson Kennedy did have his detractors, and not just from Klan sympathizers. Some scholars and writers challenged some of his written accounts of his eyewitness accounts, claiming he took credit for the actions of other, anonymous infiltrators. Other scholars and writers have defended Kennedy, saying he never hid when his information came from other unnamed sources, to protect their identities. However, that is beyond the scope of this episode. What cannot be argued is the personal risk he took by infiltrating the Klan and the general truth of his accounts of Klan activity. Attached will be links to the internet sources I used for research and you can make your own decision.
In the years since these radio episodes were broadcast and Kennedy's accounts were published we've come a long way as a society, yet have a long way yet to go.
The sources used as research for this episode were:
http://www.ferris.edu/JIMCROW/question/july09/ NOTE: this website does not clebrate the Jim Crow era. It documents the history of the era from the perspective of civil rights.
Next Week: A Curt Swan Toast!
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