This is a true story, about the a bunch of terrorists, and the people who fought against them, including writers, activists, and Superman, the man from Krypton.
Unfortunately, even Superman couldn’t put the nail in the coffin of the Ku Klux Klan.
The KKK has actually gone through several historical phases. The first one, founded by Confederate veterans/terrorists like Nathan Bedford Forrest, rampaged through the former Confederacy in the wake of the Civil War. It was crushed in the 1870s by a series of arrests and trials, and further undone by its own disorganized, decentralized nature.
The Klan was re-born in the early 1920s, inspired by movies like Birth of a Nation. Around 1920, America went through a spasm of fear of the other – there were political and social movements against Catholics, immigrants, communists, unionists, women, and of course, against African Americans and other racial minorities. The Klan was against all of them.
This time the Klan’s membership swelled into the millions and it became a serious political force. The new Klan had three main purposes: political violence and racial terrorism, massive expansion, and making piles of money for its leadership.
Those last two were connected. Klan leaders had a monopoly on selling robes and other racist paraphernalia to their membership, and recruiters go to keep half of the sign-up dues of each new member. The Klan wound up being run like a particularly ugly Ponzi scheme.
One of those top-level recruiters/leaders would inadvertently bring Klan Part 2 down.
I know you’ll be surprised by this, but the people attracted to leadership positions in a vicious terrorist organization were often nasty pieces of work. D.C. Stephenson, head of the Indiana Klan, was convicted of rape and murder in 1926. He’d been in charge of recruiting for much of the mid-west, and his conviction and pushback from anti-racist groups hammered the Klan’s membership numbers in the late 1920s.
In the post-war years, there were rumours of a Klan resurgence. That’s when an activist named Stetson Kennedy, a former colleague of famed African-American writer Zora Neale Thurston, decided to infiltrate the Klan. He joined up in 1946 and found out about their silly code words and handshakes – and he warned their potential victims when they were going to go on the rampage.
Then he decided he needed better publicity for his anti-Klan campaign. He picked the world’s first superhero to help. In 1946, Kennedy approached the writers of The Adventures of Superman radio show about featuring a Klan-style group as a new bad guy. The writers loved it and cranked out a month-long storyline in which Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen is targeted by the “Clan of the Fiery Cross” for putting a Chinese-American boy on a Little League team. The conflict escalates until Superman busts up the whole bigoted organization. During the episodes, real Klan trivia was seeded in, making the villains look ridiculous.
After the episodes aired, Klan members reportedly complained that their own kids were playing Superman vs the Klan.
The Superman episodes have been seen as one of the last setbacks for the second phase of the Klan. Sadly, despite being punched out by Superman, fought by thousands of activists, and combining evil and silliness, the Klan still exists today.