Clark and Lois get most of the attention at The Daily Planet, but their editor Perry White had his heroic moments too. One was when his editorials against a white-hooded gang of hatemongers resulted in a burning cross on his lawn, a close call with a bucket of tar and sack of feathers, and a brush with death at the hands of a Ku Klux Klan look-alike group.
The group — which the Superman scriptwriters called “a gang of hooded terrorists” way back in 1946 — was “The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” subject of a 16-episode story by that name. Behind the scenes was a real-life journalist and folklorist named Stetson Kennedy, who leaked Ku Klux Klan information to syndicated columnist Drew Pearson and to producers of the Superman radio serial, as noted in the Associated Press obituary for Kennedy, who died in August at 94. (He would have turned 95 Oct. 5, and memorial tributes are being posted at stetsonkennedy.com)
The full “Clan of the Fiery Cross” serial is part of the Internet Archive’s old time radio files, on page nine of its Superman collection, along with an earlier 1946 storyline “The Hate Mongers,” which had a similarly progressive theme. This time, Perry White was the target of a car bomb after he contributed $10,000 to an interfaith community group, while Superman joined forces with a rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Methodist minister to fight leftover Nazis in Metropolis.
For a taste of the action, Part 9 of the Clan of the Fiery Cross tale is a good example. In it, White confronts the “Grand Scorpion” of the “no foreigners” clan, mincing no words:
“You’re talking rot and you know it. The nation was founded by foreigners and built by foreigners. Everyone here either came from another country or is descended from folks who did. Don’t you ever read your history, you, you stupid bigot?…
I’ll fight you to the last breath, and so will every other American worth his salt. We’ll flush you and your hate-peddling goons out from behind your dirty sheets and clap you in jail where you belong.”
— Perry White
Meanwhile, Clark Kent and Lois Lane (not Superman) fight back with an extra edition and a page one editorial calling on an informer to reveal the identity of the clan leader and help The Daily Planet find its kidnapped editor.
The whole story is a fascinating portrayal of journalists as crusaders for American ideals of tolerance and brotherhood at the end of World War II. An American-born Chinese biochemist and his baseball-star son are the focal point of the clan’s race hatred, and Kent, White and Jimmy Olsen make numerous references to the just-defeated Nazis. (I don’t recall hearing any reference to Japan, or to the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war.)
The episode wasn’t Superman’s first battle with bigotry. Early that same year, he took on “The hate mongers organization” in a 25-episode adventure that brought together people of all faiths and races. This turn toward social-issue stories was well planned as an “Operation Intolerance,” for which the producers actively sought “writers who could combine cliff-hanging technique with crusades against intolerance, state a case and a solution in terms which children could understand, keep the character of Superman alive and combine exciting entertainment with a plain spoken message.” (From “Broadcasting” magazine, May 1946, quoting William B. Lewis of Superman, Inc., advertisng firm, Kenyon & Eckhardt; in Hayde, p 71)
Another newspaper reporter came to the rescue, Ben Peter Freeman, who had written for The New York Times before leaving daily journalism to freelance for magazines, then joining Robert Maxwell Associates, producers of the Superman radio and TV series. He continued with the company into the 1950s. As a result of “Operation Intolerance,” he received an award of merit in 1949 for promotion of civil rights in 1949 from Freedom House President Robert Patterson, the former Secretary of War. While Freeman’s Times experience is mentioned in most film and television indexes, a report of that presentation is the only mention of his name found in a search of The New York Times digital archive. [“Beware of Soviet, Patterson Urges”; New York Times, Jan 24, 1949. pg. 5 ; ProQuest Historical Newspapers]
Among other projects, Freeman had written sports-related fiction for magazines, and Jimmy Olsen’s local sports teams are the setting for Superman’s battles against intolerance.
Impatient listeners who want to download and listen to the whole story: Be aware the “15 minute” episodes are more like 10 minutes if you skip or fast-forward through the Kellogg’s Pep commercials and an “In yesterday’s episode…” and “On tomorrow…” summaries at the beginning and end.
Incidentally, according to the Superman historians at Wikia, the character of editor White was first created for the radio series in 1939, then migrated into Superman’s comic book, cartoons, television and feature film adaptations. Julian Noa played the role on the radio for the full dozen years of the program.
The “Clan of the Fiery Cross” story also reminded me of the real Pulitzer Prize winning editorials of two small North Carolina newspapers who fought the real-life Klan a little later. Editor Horace Carter spent three years editorializing against racism and bigotryin more than 130 articles — and Tabor City, N.C., was no Metropolis — with no Superman to protect the editor.
From the site:
“In May 1953 his efforts were recognized when his weekly paper, the Tabor City Tribune, received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, considered by many the most prestigious of the Pulitzers annually awarded for journalism. The Tribune became the first weekly paper to receive the esteemed award.
“Sharing the Public Service Pulitzer with Carter was a neighboring publication, the News Reporter of Whiteville, N. C., and its editor Willard Cole. Cole, like Carter, editorialized against the Klan, risking his safety and the newspaper’s welfare.”
- “‘His greatest enemy? Intolerance!’ The Superman radio show in 1946,” by Michael Goodrum in Scan, Journal of Media Arts, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.
- Flights of Fantasy, by Michael J. Hayde, 2009, Albany, Ga., Bear Manor Media.
- Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan : the true story of how the iconic superhero battled the men of hate; by Rick Bowers; Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2012.
- Freeman, Ben, “Right of Conquest,” Collier’s Weekly, Nov. 11, 1939, pp. 15-16. (http://www.unz.org/Pub/Colliers-1939nov11-00015)
- New York Times obit for Stetson Kennedy
- Bob Garfield’s Stetson Kennedy memorial from NPR’s On the Media
- Superman Versus the KKK in Metro, 1998, citing Weyn Craig Wade’s history of the Ku Klux Klan, The Fiery Cross, and a 1947 New Republic article about the show.
Updated Oct.2 with Stetson Kennedy information above.