Saturday, December 31, 2011

Superman Fighting the KKK

As a life-long Marvel Comics fan, I have always turned my nose up to DC Comics.  DC comics always seemed too simplistic. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman may have seemed really creative when they were created in the 1940's but for my post-hippy angst, Marvel was much more appealing.  Stan Lee created characters like Spiderman, the Hulk and X-men in the 1960's.  They are much more complex.  Their stories have an edge to them and have a lot more social commentary in them with themes of racism, otherness and individuality.

I just finished a  chapter in Freakonomics (by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner) that gave me new appreciation for Superman, not the comic but the radio show.  In the 1940's political activist Stetson Kennedy went undercover with the Ku Klux Klan with the intention of publishing a book about their inner workings.  He learned a lot of their secrets like their recruiting techniques, passwords, handshakes and terminology.  For example, when a Klansman went on the road, they could find other Klansmen by asking around for "Mr Ayak" which stood for "Are you a Klansman?".   If a Klansman heard someone asking for Mr. Ayak at a bar, a church etc., they could identify themselves by replying "Yes, and I also know a Mr. Akai" which stood for "A Klansman Am I."

The Klan was growing strong.  Kennedy thought that just another journalistic book would not affect the spread of bigotry enough, he had a better idea.  He contacted the producers of the very popular Superman radio show.  Superman was running out of villains.  Why not take on the Klan?  "The Clan of the Fiery Cross" was born in 1946.  For 16 episodes Superman battled the Klan.  In these episodes the Ayak/Akai passwords were revealed and the Klan mystique was demystified.  If the following years the Klan attendance dropped and recruitment plummeted.  What was once a secret code was now common and afloat in the pop culture airways.

Levitt and Dubner call Kennedy, the "biggest blow" to the KKK in their history.  They may have over stated this, but the idea that tolerance is good business may have started here.  Nonetheless my appreciation for Superman, real world or otherwise has greatly increased.

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