Superman’s Pal, Stetson Kennedy

Has Jimmy Olsen ever tried to change the status quo? The schema of Jimmy Olsen that lives in the major metropolitan area of my head is a young, freckle-faced photographer in a bow tie and a tweed dress jacket that he probably borrowed out of his father’s closet for his big job at The Daily Planet. I spy with my mind’s eye a “Superman signal watch” because he is frequently in danger. The word that immediately comes to mind is victim.

 Stetson Kennedy would have been a much better sidekick for the Man of Steel.

Civil Rights advocate and author, Stetson Kennedy

Kennedy was not born in Metropolis, Smallville, Krypton, or any other fictional locale in the DCU, but in the Jim Crow South of our world. He grew up in a family of privilege and one of his ancestors even held a title in the Ku Klux Klan. Kennedy grew up with an African-American maid, who was important to him throughout his journey to adulthood. She was violently attacked and sexually assaulted by KKK members for perceived disrespect to whites.[1] Stetson Kennedy was disgusted by this and other incidents that he saw firsthand in his native Florida. He resolved to change things for the better.

In the early 1940s, Kennedy began an ambitious plan to undermine the influence of the Ku Klux Klan. Well into his adulthood at this point and very aware of the dangerous consequences if he was caught, he infiltrated the KKK. After buzzing the hate-group’s hang-outs in the Atlanta, Georgia area, Kennedy was invited to become a member of the hate group. He rose in the ranks to become a Knight of the Klavaliers, the militant wing of the Klan; in this position, he saw the worst of the group’s inhumanity, including the murder of an African-American man.[2]

After several years of gathering information and disseminating it to trusted legal authorities like the Anti-Defamation League, Kennedy contacted Robert Maxwell, the producer of the Mutual Network’s The Adventures of Superman radio serial.[3] Kennedy intended to undermine the Ku Klux Klan by broadcasting their secret codes and rituals. Rather than create his own program and wait for it to gain listeners, Kennedy opted for the Superman show because of its popularity and ready-made audience. And so, “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” hit the airwaves.

The series broadcast in June, 1946. The real-life Klan attempted to shut the show down by leading boycotts of sponsors. The show continued to air as the show’s ratings picked up and the Klan looked stupid. Kennedy’s efforts were successful; Publicly outed, the KKK’s recruitment numbers plummeted and the group faded into obscurity until the 1960s.

While the Oscar Committee doesn’t generally give superhero movies a lot of love, Stetson Kennedy used the popularity of The Adventures of Superman to strike a blow against an organization of people to whom “racial equality” is an insult. Contemporary fans of the DCU might not know the names of its cast—Bud Collyer (“Clark Kent” and “Superman”), Joan Alexander (“Lois Lane”), Jackie Kelk (“Jimmy Olsen”), and even Stacy Harris and Ronald Liss as Batman and Robin respectively—but every one of them deserve to be remembered for their contributions to the radio show that helped undermine the power of the KKK. Jim Crow laws were repealed in the last half of the Twentieth Century, and one has a greater chance of seeing Ryan Howatt at a taco truck than seeing the KKK in the media. Still, America remains a divided country, battles being fought over race, gender, LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive rights, and immigration. In that world, I would rather see someone like Stetson Kennedy bending Superman’s ear, not victim Jimmy Olsen.

To read more about the Stetson Kennedy and Superman team-up, check out Rick Bowers’ Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate (2012). DC also adapted of one of the radio episodes into Superman Smashes the Klan! (2020).

[2] Ibid., 100.

[3] Margaret Anne Bulger, “Stetson Kennedy: Applied Folklore and Cultural Advocacy,” Ph. D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1992), 206; ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

[1] Stetson Kennedy, The Klan Unmasked (Boca Ratan, LA: Florida Atlantic University Press, 1991), 18-9.

Views: 24
Clive Dodge

ByClive Dodge

Clive Dodge lives in the American Midwest with his spousal equivalent and an imaginary cockatrice named Pete. He has written fiction and pop culture under various pen names for an impossibly long time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comics Illustrated