Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Superman Versus The Ku Klux Klan: the true story of how the iconic superhero battled the men of hate

By Rick Bowers.  National Geographic, 2012

The 1930s was a time of change in America.  People were just beginning to rise out of the the Great Depression but they still had a long road ahead of them.  Most people with jobs were considered lucky, and Jerry Siegal's family was one of the lucky ones.  The Siegel's lived in a small, safe Jewish community outside of Cleveland Ohio. Jerry went to a typical high school, but wasn't the typical teen. Instead of hanging out after school or going out with friends, Jerry would go to his attic and spend hours reading science fiction magazines or watch swash-bucklers like Zorro on the silver screen. With the help of his friend Joe Shuster, they would create one of the most famous and recognizable superheroes in American history.  What started out as a simple comic book fantasy in 1932 would become bigger than anything they could have dreamed of.

The South didn't fare much better than the Midwest during the Great Depression, and Southerners felt the desperation as well. This was the catalyst that brought the Ku Klux Klan rearing its ugly head in American history once more. The KKK began their sordid reign after the Civil War, but lost some steam and by the 1930's there wasn't much left of the group. Because of the tensions of the times, leaders saw a chance to revive the Klan to target men who would band together and fight for their rights, regardless of disreputable actions.  It was also during their second rise that a new symbol emerged from the KKK which would send fear throughout the nation...the burning cross.

Then there was a boy named Stetson Kennedy.  Growing up in Florida, Stetson was raised in a family based on Southern values.  He was considered free-spirited and spent a lot of his time playing outside, which exposed young Stetson to the shanties where "colored folk" lived and the poor treatment they endured by the whites was noticeable. This left a bad taste in his mouth that later would parlay into a career in exposing the KKK through the mightiest weapon of all...the pen.

With World War II looming in the distance and the fanatical rantings of a lunatic Chancellor in Germany, the KKK began a huge resurgence in membership and power, able to create death and destruction without any repercussions for their actions.  Little did they know that someone else was gaining followers more followers...Superman.  And after the War, he would take on the KKK in a showdown of morality that had lasting impact on Americans everywhere...

Bowers takes two of the most intriguing symbols of good and bad in the annals of American history and writes a narrative of their beginnings, the processes each went through to gain momentum in society, and the power they wielded in American culture.  He also weaves biographies of the creators and leaders of these two entities as well as those closely involved in each.  Bowers compliments his book by filling it with images of the time as well as an interesting afterword on all the people he wrote about in the book. The biggest draw for YA readers to this book is not only the intrigue of the KKK and Superman as iconic images of polar opposites, but the writing that is easily digestible and doesn't come across as textbookish.  Recommended for JH/HS

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Guardian by Julius Lester
any Superman comic book

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