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.

Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

10 Fascinating Facts About Chinese New Year

iStock.com/aluxum
iStock.com/aluxum

Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning January 25 in 2020, China will welcome the Year of the Rat, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. Chinese New Year was originally meant to scare off a monster.

Nian at Chinese New Year
iStock.com/jjMiller11

As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A lot of families use Chinese New Year as motivation to clean the house.

woman ready to clean a home
iStock.com/PRImageFactory

While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. Chinese New Year will prompt billions of trips.

Man waiting for a train.
iStock.com/MongkolChuewong

Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. Chinese New Year involves a lot of superstitions.

Colorful pills and medications
iStock.com/FotografiaBasica

While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. Some people rent boyfriends or girlfriends for Chinese New Year to soothe their parents.

Young Asian couple smiling
iStock.com/RichVintage

In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. Red envelopes are everywhere during Chinese New Year.

a person accepting a red envelope
iStock.com/Creative-Family

An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. Chinese New Year can create record levels of smog.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
iStock.com/lusea

Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. Black clothes are a bad omen during Chinese New Year.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
iStock.com/lusea

So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. Chinese New Year leads to planes being stuffed full of cherries.

Bowl of cherries
iStock.com/CatLane

Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand. In 2017, Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. Panda Express is hoping Chinese New Year will catch on in America.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

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