After the end of World War II the Ku Klux Klan tried to make a comeback. This was the second Klan, founded in 1915 in the wake of Birth of a Nation. The first Klan had fallen apart in the 1870s, and this second Klan was enormously popular for a moment in the beginning of the 20th century, with an estimated membership of 4 million people. The second Klan were the ones who popularized the burning cross as a method of intimidation, and they were able to play on fears about new Catholic immigrants from Europe as well as black migration within America. This new Klan was more urban than the first Klan, largely because black migration to cities from rural areas had created racist panics.
The Klan was struggling when WWII ended, but they were ready to make a big splash, and in a different world they might have truly exploded in the coming decade. The Klan had become a powerful political force in the south in the 1920s, and in 1928 thousands of Klansmen and women's auxillary members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC, hoods lifted to proudly display their faces. That's how powerful the Klan had become. If the Klan had been able to take advantage of the growing racial tensions in the post-war years, the history of America could have been quite different. But Superman helped stop them before that could happen.
Or rather, a man named Stetson Kennedy did. He was already a cultural hero before he got involved with stopping the Klan; in the 1930s and 40s he worked to preserve Florida's folk history, making him one of the most important folklorists of the 20th century. Woody Guthrie famously said of Kennedy's book Palmetto Country, "[the book] gives me a better trip and taste and look and feel for Florida than I got in the forty-seven states I've actually been in body and tramped in boot."
While researching Florida folklore Kennedy ran first hand into the virulent racism of the south. He was white, but he worked with Zora Neale Hurston, who would be fairly obscure in her own life but would end up being a towering figure in literature. Hurston, a black woman, was unable to travel with Kennedy because of Jim Crow laws, and even had to use a separate colored entrace when going to the Federal Writers' Project offices in Jacksonville (they were working for the WPA at the time). Stetson would later say that you could be killed simply for lighting the cigarette of a person who was the wrong color.
After WWII Stetson took an interest in the Klan in the wake of a revival meeting at Georgia's Stone Mountain, where a 300 foot tall cross was burned. Stetson went undercover in the KKK and learned their secret codes and their secret doctrines; the Klan operated under a cover of mysteriousness, and Stetson knew that getting all of their innermost secrets would weaken them. He took his information to the authorities but found that they either didn't care or were sympathetic to the Klan. This group - which managed to balance extreme violence with political power - were untouchable by ordinary means.
So how to attack the Klan? Stetson had a brilliant idea - he approached the producers of The Adventures of Superman radio show about using the KKK as a villain on the program. His timing was perfect - in 1946 the writers found themselves without a bad guy, as Superman had spent the whole war fighting the Axis. The KKK offered a strong opponent for the Man of Steel.
And so was born The Clan of the Fiery Cross, which is probably the most important story in the history of the radio program*. In this 16-part story Superman comes into conflict with the Klan when Jimmy Olsen, managing a baseball team, brings on a player who is not 'all-American' enough. Kennedy supplied the writers with real Klan code words (If you were a Klansman traveling you would ask people "Do you know Mr. Ayak?", which was a ridiculous way of asking "Are You A Klansman?" The response was "Yes, and I know Mr. Akai," which stood for "A Klansman Am I." These fucking dummies) and Klan rituals.
What happened over these 16 episodes is that the mystique of the Klan was punctured. The group, formerly a terrifying shadow organization of white pride, became seen as ridiculous. Right as the Klan was preparing to resurge - and right before a rise in national racial tensions could have offered them the most fertile breeding ground possible - Superman made them look silly.
The Klan was angered, and organized a boycott of Superman's sponsor, Kellogg's, but the damage was done. The Klan would come back in the late 50s and early 60s, but their political power was gone - they were just a terrorist organization. They would never recover their respect.
Today there's a group calling itself #GamerGate. Some people have asked me why I spend time giving them attention - surely that's all they want. Ignore them and they go away, these people say. I disagree. I stand with Stetson Kennedy - the best way to cripple a hate movement is to make it ridiculous, to expose its inherent silliness, to make it impossible for them to recruit new members. By the end of The Clan of the Fiery Cross the Klan's recruitment numbers had dropped precipitously; hopefully by shining a light of ridicule on #GamerGate we can do the same. Like the Klan, #GamerGate has attacked the sponsors of those who mock them, but like the Klan their efforts will be ultimately futile.
Ignoring hate groups only gives them the darkness in which to grow like a vile fungus. Hopefully the reaction of Superman's current guardians will be similar to those writers in 1946 - they will see a group that is opposed to equality, decency and the American way and they'll send the Last Son of Krypton out to take a big old superpiss on them.
* We can have a nerd fight about whether this story is more important than the episodes of the radio show that introduced Kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White.