When Superman Fought Xenophobia in a 1949 Comic

Comic: Hake's. Background: iStock.
Comic: Hake's. Background: iStock.

A vintage comic book-style illustration that shows Superman lecturing a group of students on the values of tolerance has circulated widely on social media. “And remember, boys and girls, your school—like our country—is made up of Americans of many different races, religions and national origins,” Superman says with a wag of his finger, “So… If YOU hear anybody talk against a schoolmate or anyone else because of his religion, race or national origin—don’t wait: tell him THAT KIND OF TALK IS UN-AMERICAN. Help keep your school All American!”

The illustration is authentic. It was drawn by Superman comic book artist Wayne Boring around 1949, and it was stamped on a protective schoolbook cover (one of which recently sold at auction for $805) and a poster. But the comic is more than a quaint piece of Americana; it’s a relic from a largely forgotten nationwide tolerance movement that swept the country for more than a decade. Powerful people in government also suspected Superman’s brand of patriotism was ... anti-American propaganda.

THE TOLERANCE MOVEMENT

During the 1940s, America basically underwent a nationwide sensitivity training program. Zoe Burkholder, a historian of education, writes in the Harvard Educational Review that a “forced tolerance” movement had begun frothing a decade earlier as educators feared that scientific racism—the pseudoscientific “Master Race” theories brewing in Germany—could waft overseas.

Educators deliberated how, and if, they should teach students to accept racial, cultural, and religious differences. After all, the ethnic makeup of America was quickly changing. The first wave of the Great Migration saw nearly 2 million African Americans move north and west to cities. While most classrooms remained segregated, even the whitest schools were increasingly mixed with the children of different immigrant groups.

In 1938, the New York City Board of Education began requiring students to learn about how multiple groups contributed to American history. When World War II erupted one year later, the demand for tolerance education spiked. The New York Times reported in 1939 that "Instances were cited of teachers in New York City and elsewhere being 'ridiculed, harassed and otherwise impeded' by pupils under the influence of, and stimulated by, Nazi doctrine." To nip foreign propaganda in the bud, schools across the country joined the tolerance movement. Military leaders encouraged it, too. They knew that American troops, many of them fresh out of school, would fight their best if they learned to set aside their differences.

Countless non-profit groups, many of them interreligious, led the charge. Burkholder writes that “Religious leaders, educators, and politicians stressed tolerance as a central tenet of democracy." They provided prejudice-fighting materials to schools, from teachers’ manuals to comic books to textbooks.

Outside of school, short pro-tolerance films played at the beginning of movies. People held tolerance rallies. The National Conference of Christians and Jews distributed 10 million “Badge of Tolerance” buttons. Groups such as the Council Against Intolerance in America distributed maps showing the breadth of diversity in America’s cultural landscape. Even Superboy stepped in, telling a bunch of his schoolmates that “No single land, race or nationality can claim this country as its own.” At the end, Superboy and his pals celebrate by eating Swedish meatballs.

The Superman comic that went viral was the handiwork of one tolerance organization: the Institute for American Democracy. Led by an Episcopalian priest, the Institute’s lineup of leaders resembled a walk-into-the-bar joke: Among its officers were a Catholic bishop, a rabbi presiding over the Synagogue Council of America, and labor movement honchos. The Institute’s goal was to “blanket the nation with poster, billboard, cartoon, and blotter advertising—expertly planned to ‘sell’ the American public a greater appreciation of the American Creed.”

And it did. Al Segal, a columnist for the Indiana-based Jewish Post, wrote in 1947 that the Institute was “hitting anti-Semitism and allied hates between the eyes in street cars, buses and newspapers all around the country.” In 1953, The New York Times called the Institute’s work “Do-Good advertising” that proved “mass media advertising can sell an idea, just as it can sell soap or chewing gum.”

ADL/Institute for American Democracy

ADL/Institute for American Democracy

ADL/Institute for American Democracy

Messages we can all agree on, right? Nope. This was the McCarthy era. Even the most pro-American advertisements couldn’t help being called un-American.

AN INTOLERABLE CONSPIRACY?

In 1948, California's Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities—a group of lawmakers charged with investigating disloyal and subversive citizens and groups—listed the Institute for American Democracy as a potential communist front. It claimed that the Institute had “numerous known Communists” on its governing body.

The committee complained that a truly American organization would speak explicitly against communism. Since the Institute didn’t scold communists, it was complicit with them. The committee further argued that the Institute, and other pro-tolerance organizations like it, had exaggerated America’s discrimination problems: “There is an attempt to spread the idea that forces of fascism are everywhere entrenched,” it stated.

A bigger problem was that the Institute was mostly subsidized by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, or ADL. The House Un-American Activities Committee was not a fan of the ADL.

The Anti-Defamation League formed in 1913 to combat prejudice against Jewish people. Between 1880 and World War I, approximately 2 million Jews had emigrated to America. By the early 20th century, restaurants, hotels, and clubs regularly barred Jews from entering their premises. Medical schools at Cornell and Yale placed limits on the number of Jewish students they would accept. (Yale’s medical school dean, Milton Winternitz—who was Jewish—reportedly told the school’s admissions officers, “Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all.”) Even the U.S. military's medical advisory board casually stated that “the foreign born, especially the Jews, are more apt to malinger than the native born.”

By World War II, the ADL had joined the tolerance movement. It helped found and fund [PDF] organizations like the Institute for Democratic Education and the Institute for American Democracy, soaking citizens in calls for brotherhood. The groups aired radio shows telling the stories of famous Americans, such as George Washington Carver, and played them on more than 700 radio stations. It even lobbied the producers of the Superman radio show to insert democratic themes into its broadcasts. The group reached 63,000 schools, veterans groups, and private businesses.

Some legislators, especially State Senator Jack B. Tenney, chairman of California’s Un-American Activities Committee, believed this was a nefarious facade. Tenney, who was once nominated as a candidate for Vice President of the Christian Nationalist Party (which advocated racial segregation) and who equated [PDF] McCarthyism with “Americanism,” had once visited an ADL office and returned convinced their anti-prejudice campaigns were a Trojan Horse designed to brainwash Americans with Zionist propaganda. He believed the ADL was a gestapo-like cabal with communist sympathies.

LIFE magazine minced no words when it called Tenney a “notorious anti-Semite.” But his paranoia didn’t stop there. He didn’t trust Shintoism and used similar “Trojan Horse” arguments to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans. He wasn’t keen on Italians either. During World War II, the Tenney committee’s misgivings would help force 10,000 Italian immigrants in California to relocate.

As for the Institute for American Democracy, their ties to the ADL convinced Tenney that their loyalties existed outside of the United States. For that reason alone, an organization with the sole mission of touting American values was suspected of ... lacking American values. 

Thankfully, that attitude didn’t last for long. In 1949, Tenney was on his way out of the fact-finding committee, which soon gave the Institute for American Democracy a clean bill of health, offering this mea culpa:

The committee’s 1948 report, under its general designation of Communist-front organizations, listed the Institute for American Democracy and the Institute for Democratic Education. The continuing investigation of these organizations reveals that both are sponsored by responsible individuals and groups of unquestioned loyalty. The programs … are in full keeping with the best American traditions and ideals and it is the design of the sponsoring individuals and groups to inculcate and preserve in the hearts and consciences of the American people love and loyalty for and to our country and the great principles of American liberty and democracy.

When you consider this historical context, the Superman comic becomes far more badass. The illustration appeared in 1949, one year after the Tenney Committee suggested the Institute for American Democracy was a communist front. Superman’s response? He steals the committee’s favorite accusation and slings it back in their direction: “That kind of talk is Un-American.”

As for Tenney, he’d later run for Senate in Los Angeles under the slogan “The Jews won’t take Jack Tenney,” a prediction that applied to Jewish people and, apparently, everybody else. Despite a plot to confuse voters by putting a mental patient who shared the same last name as his opponent on the ballot, Tenney still lost the Republican primary to 33-year-old Mildred Younger, a political activist who had never before held government office.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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