Superman: A superhero for civil rights

Nathan Hager,

WASHINGTON – The civil rights movement has a wealth of iconic leaders: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Superman.

Wait a minute — Superman?

Every February, we’re reminded of the ongoing fight against bigotry in the U.S. in celebration of Black History Month. But there’s an episode in the history of race relations in this country that many might not be aware of — it’s a story of truth, justice and the American way.

In this case, “the American way” includes fighting hate groups that thrived in parts of the U.S. just a couple of generations ago.

On June 10, 1946, hundreds of thousands of kids gathered around their radios for one of the most popular children’s programs of the time, “The Adventures of Superman.” They were about to hear the Man of Steel take on a new and — perhaps for some of those kids — familiar enemy: The Clan of the Fiery Cross.

“By 1946 the war had ended. The producers of the radio show are looking for a new villain. But they’re also looking to do something that might make a difference in the world,” says Rick Bowers, author of the book “Superman vs. The Ku Klux Klan.” “So Robert Maxwell, the producer of ‘The Adventures of Superman’ radio broadcast on Mutual Broadcasting System, decided that Superman would take on hate, intolerance and bigotry.”

Bowers says the 16-part series that resulted, titled “The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” was the culmination of a running theme on the show in which Superman battled against purveyors of hate and intolerance in various forms.

The “Fiery Cross” series focused on Tommy Lee, a son of Chinese immigrants who’s targeted for murder by a group of hooded, robed bigots. The reason: He beat a white boy out for the role of starting pitcher on a Little League baseball team coached by Daily Planet cub reporter Jimmy Olson.

The clan, led by the Grand Scorpion, Matt Riggs, burns a cross on the Lees’ front lawn and almost intimidates them into fleeing Metropolis. But Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, convinces the Lees to stand up against racial hatred.

“It was an amazing show. It got heralded in both the mainstream press and the trade press as a breakthrough for children’s programming,” says Bowers.

At the time, kids’ radio shows and the comic books that many of them were based on were criticized for violent content or for not being educational enough. Bowers says the producers of “Superman” made a conscious effort to blunt that criticism by having their caped hero take a firm stand against homegrown hate.

Yet they also chose not to go after the Ku Klux Klan by name. As much as the Clan of the Fiery Cross resembled the real-life group — with its burning crosses, white robes and hoods and mysterious nighttime gatherings — the radio Clan was fictionalized.

There was also a reason why the producers chose to make the target of the Clan’s hate an Asian boy, rather than black.

“They didn’t want to stir up too much backlash from the actual Klan,” Bowers says. “They went to some lengths to try to moderate the show, but as one of the creators said afterwards, we shouldn’t have gone to the trouble because we were criticized anyway from what they called ‘the folks in Atlanta,'” where the KKK was based.

Bowers says one of the producers, Robert Maxwell, even received death threats from the KKK in New Jersey. But the show generally was well-received, more than a decade before the civil rights movement began.

And Bowers thinks it may have helped a whole generation of kids to think differently.

“Because after all, who better than Superman to know? And if Superman says it’s wrong to hate people based on the color of their skin or their religion, it must be true,” he says.

Links to the original Superman radio shows are below:

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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