Superman Versus the Klan

In 1940, just a few years after his comic book debut, Superman took to the airwaves. For more than a decade, The Adventures of Superman played on radios throughout the United States, bringing the beloved Man of Steel to homes near and far. Despite being works of fiction, his storylines also mirrored things that were occurring in the real world at the time. For example, as American involvement in World War II increased, Superman regularly fought against fascism, spreading truth, justice, and the American Way from sea to shining sea.

But once the Allies had triumphed against the Nazi regime, Superman needed a new foe to battle. And one man, Stetson Kennedy, was in particular need of a hero. Kennedy was a writer who spent most of his early career documenting American folklore. In the early 1940s, Stetson, then in his twenties, had hoped to enlist in the war efforts, but back problems led the military to reject his application. Instead, he turned his efforts to fighting domestic terrorists at home—specifically, the Ku Klux Klan. Per his obituary in The New York Times, “Kennedy infiltrated the Klan by using the name of a deceased uncle, who had been a member, as a way to gain trust and membership.” From there, he set out to expose the Klan’s secrets—their tales of murder, mayhem, and other criminal activity—to the rest of the country.

Going to the authorities with his intel, though, would be a nonstarter. The Klan had become a powerful force in the American South after World War II and often, law enforcement turned a blind eye to the KKK’s misdeeds (in many cases, the local authorities were Klansmen themselves). Superman, however, provided a solution to Kennedy’s dilemma. Hundreds of thousands of American families were listening to each episode of his adventures, and the character was well-established as a beacon of good. If Kennedy could convince Superman’s radio producers to have the man from Krypton take on the Klan, perhaps the nation would turn on the KKK.

The producers were keen on the idea. Already looking for another nemesis for Superman following the end of the war, they saw the possibility to do good while also entertaining audiences. In the summer of 1946, they aired a sixteen-episode series titled “The Clan of the Fiery Cross.” Referencing code words and rituals that Kennedy claimed were authentic to the Klan, Team Superman lampooned the secret society, embarrassing them to an audience of hundreds of thousands.

The Klan retaliated by calling for a boycott of the show’s sponsor, Kellogg’s, which used The Adventures of Superman to promote its bran flakes cereal, Pep. The boycott backfired. The show proved quite popular, seeing as much as a 50 percent bump in ratings in light of the controversy. As a result, the Klan suffered the opposite effect; as Mental Floss noted, “within two weeks of the broadcast, KKK recruitment was down to zero.” Kellogg’s continued its sponsorship of the show.

Today’s Bonus fact: Superman’s weakness, kryptonite, made its public debut in The Adventures of Superman. Why did producers decide to give Superman an Achilles’ heel? How Stuff Works sums it up: “Its original purpose was to give voice actor Bud Collyer, who played the role of Superman, a vacation. With Superman incapacitated by kryptonite, another voice actor could supply moans until Collyer returned.”

Double bonus!: Kellogg’s is still around. They make Corn Flakes, Special K, and more than a dozen other cereals. However, Pep is long gone—and it’s not hard to understand why. For years, Pep advertised itself as having “enough bran to make it mildly laxative,” which didn’t last as an appealing selling point.

From the Archives: Superman to the Rescue: How the comic book hero — well, his comic, at least — saved a family from potential homelessness.