Rick Bowers’s previous book, Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network That Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement was a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. The journalist and historian’s latest offering is another compellingly told and meticulously researched account of events surrounding the civil rights battle. Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate uses the appeal of popular culture to illuminate social movements, mass media, and historical research. The result is a complex history of organizations guided by both ideology and profit, people both well-meaning and flawed, and shifts in popular sentiment. Along the way, Bowers demonstrates how a historian works, digging past myths, examining original archives, and reaching tentative conclusions about what happened and why.
1. You went deep into archives on the battle over civil rights to write your last book, Spies of Mississippi (discussed here). Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan is about the intersection of that history with superhero pop-culture. How much did you have to learn about the world of comics?
Rick Bowers: I had to immerse myself in the history of comic books in general and in the Superman character in particular.
Superman was first dubbed the “champion of the oppressed” and only later became famous as the champion of truth, justice, and the American way. The original Superman had a strong social conscience that led him to thwart wife beaters, corrupt politicians, greedy industrialists, foreign dictators, and Nazi spies.
Spawned during the FDR years, Superman was a super New Dealer who stood up for the little guy and believed we could all work toward a better world. He reflected the ideals of the New Deal and the hopes and aspirations of immigrants.
Given all that history it figures that the Man of Steel would one day take on the men of hate. Superman was shaped as a force for openness and fairness and a positive future for all. The K.K.K. was openly anti-Semitic, hostile to liberal democracy, and wanted to turn the clock back.
2. The Superman radio shows at the center of your book were featured in Freakonomics in 2005, but then that book’s authors retracted the story as a myth. How did you go about finding out what most likely happened?
RB: I had the advantage of beginning my research in the wake of the Freakonomics kerfuffle. That debate suggested that the popular version of events was probably not one hundred percent accurate and challenged me to find the most important facts.
Sure enough, numerous documents showed that the basic story of Superman vs. the K.K.K. was true but that certain fabrications had become accepted as fact and had muddied the historical record.
This required me to establish the core facts and stick to those.
FACT 1: In 1946 the producers of The Adventures of Superman radio show aired a sixteen-part series entitled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.” It pitted the Man of Steel against a thinly veiled version of the K.K.K. that fooled no one. The series was widely praised for teaching tolerance to millions of kids and striking a blow against bigotry. The episodes were very well researched and contained highly realistic descriptions of K.K.K. activities and beliefs.
FACT 2: Activist Stetson Kennedy had made a career out of getting very close to the K.K.K. and then revealing their secrets to civil rights groups, liberal journalists, and law enforcement. Kennedy was also cited in various publications as a source of information to the Superman radio show for the anti-Klan broadcasts.
THE MYTH: Kennedy (and others) claimed that the shows revealed secret K.K.K. code words that had been gleaned from Klan meetings in Atlanta. As a result, (the story went), Klan leaders had to change their passwords after each episode, much to the dismay of the disgruntled membership. This was first reported in a national magazine in the late1940s and was further embellished by Kennedy in his book The Klan Unmasked.
The reality is that “Clan of the Fiery Cross” — while dramatic and to a degree realistic—did not contain actual code words and did not force the Klan to scurry about changing their code words. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the Superman producers for creating such a powerful program and to give a nod to the anti-Klan efforts of Stetson Kennedy — even if he was prone to exaggeration and tended to grab credit.
3. What were a couple of your biggest surprises in researching and writing this book?
RB: One big revelation was the significant influence of Jewish publishers, artists, and writers on the first comic books. I was fascinated to learn that the Superman character was created by a couple of Jewish teenagers in Cleveland during the Great Depression. At that time Jews were largely kept out of mainstream publishing by prejudice and had to find their own niche. The fledgling comic book business was not yet big enough to attract the interest of mainstream publishers and Jews could operate in that space. As a result Jewish publishers and artists gave us many of our most important superheroes and characters.
I was also surprised at just how controversial comic books were. Even Superman was condemned by critics as a Nazi-style vigilante who used violence to solve problems. Wonder Woman was derided as the very opposite of decent womanhood. By the time the crime and horror comics came along censorship was viewed as the only solution.
4. A fair amount of your book follows Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman, though by 1946 they no longer controlled the character and were about to break with DC Comics. How did you decide to keep them as part of your civil-rights story?
RB: Jerry and Joe deserve all the credit for creating a character with a social conscience — an all-powerful being with a burning desire to stand by the little guy and to crusade for a better world. All the artists and producers to come after the publication of those first comic books were standing on their shoulders. So even as Jerry and Joe planned their embittered departure from DC Comics, the Superman character was still carrying out a mission established back in 1938.
Jerry and Joe had not set out to change the world, but they did more than their part to make it better.
5. In a real fight, who would win: 1940s Superman or the K.K.K.?
RB: Hands down: Superman. An actual being with superhuman strength, the power of flight, and X-ray vision would defeat a band of bigots in sheets and hoods in short order. First of all a fully unleashed Superman would have done what the authorities should have been doing — catch the Klansmen in the midst of their criminal acts and bring them to justice for all to see. He also would have nabbed the politicians and police officials who protected the Klan and exposed them as the hypocrites they were. And he would have explained to the whole world that all people deserve equal rights and respect, and those who seek to deny it are wrong. In the end the hooded hatemongers would have no hiding place — and the world would be a better place.
From the February 2012 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.