The Superman television show starring George Reeves was surely one of the most-enduring interpretations of the character. It ran from 1951 to 1958, but lived on in syndication for much longer and introduced generations of children to Clark Kent and friends.
Reeves himself is quoted as saying, “Our writers and sponsors have children and they are all very careful about doing things on the show that will have no adverse effect on the young audience. We even try, in our scripts, to give gentle messages of tolerance and to stress that a man’s color and race and religious beliefs should be respected.”
But my personal favourite moment of anti-racism Reeves’s Superman didn’t happen on the show. It happened when…
Superman Visits the Malco Theatre
When the movie Superman and the Mole Men was to play at the Malco Theatre in Memphis, the four principal actors of the show, George Reeves (Superman), Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen), Noel Niell (Lois Lane), and John Hamilton (Perry White), were sent to town to do public appearances. They were slated to appear on stage and say hello to the crowd after the showings.
After checking into their hotels, the cast had a look around town and they couldn’t help but notice things like separate water fountains for “Whites” and “Coloreds”. This raised alarm bells and, upon checking, they found that the Malco theatre was indeed also segregated. Whites got to sit in the main audience section and black customers were confined to the balcony.
Reeves called whoever one calls in such a situation and declared that the cast would not appear before a segregated audience. Eventually a deal was reached that everyone agreed on: the cast would set up a table outside the theatre where they would greet and sign autographs for every child who entered the theatre, regardless of which section they’d be forced to sit in.
It’s a small thing, but it’s the right thing, and that’s what Superman is about.
Source: I’ve taken all of the information in this article from Flights of Fancy: The Unauthorized but True Story of Radio & TV’s Adventures of Superman by Michael J. Hayde, published in 2009
- “Superman and the Mole Men” is about a small town that is frightened by strange-looking figures who have been spotted skulking around. Ultimately, Superman finds the Mole Men to be friendly characters and saves them from the riled-up townspeople intent on killing them. While there is no systemic or institutional anti-Mole Man bias in society that I know of, it is definitely an anti-racism-adjacent message that gets my approval and heightens message of the true story above.
- Although the book says that Neill was present at the event, Lois in Mole Men was played by Phyllis Coates. But I suppose that if Coates had already been replaced on the show at this time, they would have sent Neill along for this event.
- Earlier in the same chapter we also get details of Reeves’s work with the Mambo Club, a charitable organization based in the Los Angeles barrios dedicated to helping disenfranchised Mexican-American youth. We’re told of a time he appeared as Superman expecting a crowd of about 150 children, only to find roughly three thousand had come. Even with the unexpected turnout spent the time to answer questions, sign autographs, and let kids feel his muscles.
- I can’t remember any other specific anti-racism episodes off the top of my head, and I haven’t got the time to justify watching through the show as a whole just now. But, smelling the possibility of unfortunate stereotyping, I checked out “Drums of Death”, an episode that originally aired January 16, 1953. The story sees the Planet reporters on an investigation in Haiti and does, naturally, feature a villain in blackface. The thing is, it isn’t a case of a white actor playing a black character, in this story the white actor is playing a white villain who is wearing blackface in the story. On top of that, the episode does feature at least two actual black actors with speaking roles, and multiple black extras. For an episode of a 50s adventure show, I think this may be the best outcome of blackface we’ll find.
- Later on in Flights of Fancy, Hayde puts forth some conjecture that the coming of Comics Code limited the amount of stories that they were willing to do in which Superman challenged the Status Quo. I’d say that definitely holds true for the comics, but yeah, I suppose it could have influenced the show’s writing as well.
This was a short one, so I thought I’d throw in some other examples of Superman extolling the virtues of diversity and tolerance outside of his stories. Here are some little public service announcements that appeared in comics over the years:
We are, as I said, now in the era of the Comics Code. Are there comics I can find that still address Superman vs Bigotry? That’s rhetorical. I can.