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6 Reasons Professor X and Magneto Are NOT Based on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

Welcome to comic questions answered. It's a long-dormant feature where we answer fans burning questions like How Does Wolverine Bend His Arms? and Why Does Spider-Man Stick to Walls?

Today's question is a popular one so you may have heard it before:

Claim: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Pressor X and Magneto inspired by the 1960s civil rights icons Martin Luthor King Jr. and Malcolm X

Rating: Unconfirmed (Probably false)

First a primer.

Who are Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X?

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, and was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the pivotable spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement starting in 1955. He strongly believed in advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience. He credited his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.

Malcolm Little, who later changed his name to "Malcolm X" was born May 19, 1925, and was assassinated on February 21, 1965. He was an American Muslim minister and human rights activist. He gained popularity during the civil rights movement but was far more controversial than MLK. Malcolm X soon became the face of the "Nation of Islam". He advocated for black supremacy and the separation of black and white Americans by "any means necessary". He rejected the idea of the popular civil rights movement because it focused on racial integration.

Malcolm X held special ire for Dr. King calling him a "20th century Uncle Tom". He also called MLK's famous "March on Washington" a "farce". Meanwhile, Martin Luther King objected to the type of radicalism Malcolm X called for writing, "Fiery, demagogic oratory in the Black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief."

The two men were at odds with each other but never formally met until March 26, 1964, when the two met for the one and only time when they both attended the Senate's debate on the Civil Rights bill. They took a picture together and never saw each other again.

The two men wanted to achieve the same thing - freedom and equal rights for black people - but saw very different methods to achieve it. Malcolm X taking a very more aggressive approach than Martin Luther King Jr.

Who Are Professor X and Magneto?

Uncanny X-Men #1 (1963) - Comic Cover by Jack Kirby

In 1963 Marvel released the very first issue of the X-Men. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Uncanny X-Men #1 and it was released on September 10, 1963.

Professor Charles Francis Xavier first appears in Uncanny X-Men #1 (1963). He's born to a wealthy family in New York City and his father is a well-respected nuclear scientist. They grow up in a mansion and attends Oxford University, where he earns a Professorship in Genetics and other science fields. When he hits late adolescence he inherits his family's mansion and sets up "Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters" to train mutants.

Max Eisenhardt, who later changed his name to Erik Lehnsherr was born to a German Jewish family. His family fled the Nazis to Poland before being captured. His mother, father, and sister were killed by the Third Reich before he was sent to the German concentration camp Auschwitz. He decided he would never allow these atrocities to happen again and to protect his mutant brothers and sister by any means necessary.

On the face of it, the characters sound very similar. One espousing peaceful coexistence and the other violent uprising. But it's practically impossible that they comic book characters are based on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

1. Martin Luther King is Nothing Like Professor X

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would never have agreed with Xavier's portrayal. Dr. King believed in peace at all costs. He would never have believed he should train young people to fight. Yet Professor X had his famous "Danger Room" where he pushed his young men and women hard to fight.
Uncanny X-Men #1 (1963) - Comic Panel by Jack Kirby

"Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964. "Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."

That kind of attitude makes for a boring comic book so it's unlikely Lee and Kirby thought of that as a model.

2. Malcolm X is Nothing Like Magneto

Magento, on the other hand, was a typical villain for the time. He wanted to overthrow the human race who he thought was inferior.
Uncanny X-Men #1 (1963) - Comic Panel by Jack Kirby

That's not what Malcolm X wanted. He wanted whites and blacks to live in separate, but equal, worlds. He didn't want to eliminate white people but didn't want to integrate with them. "It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong," he once said. "What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep."

The idea that Stan Lee would see Malcolm X as a sympathetic hero is laughable at the time. Nowadays, in the light of history, he's a more nuanced man. But back then he was a polarizing figure. It's hard to believe Stan Lee would intentionally base his villain on a radical follower of Islam.

3. The MLK and Malcolm X Connections Didn't Happen For 20 Years

The idea that Xavier and Eric are based on Dr. King and Malcolm X didn't come until much later in the 1980s. At that time British comic book writer Chris Claremont started writing the series. At the time the X-Men comics were languishing in obscurity and he was looking for ways to modernize the characters and revive their social resonance.

He felt that the connections to the civil rights leaders made a good parallel to the relationship between the two mutant leaders. "My resonance to Magneto and Xavier was borne more out of the Holocaust," Clairmont said. "It was coming face to face with evil, and how do you respond to it? In Magneto's case, it was violence begets violence. In Xavier's, it was the constant attempt to find a better way. As we got distance from the '60s, the Malcolm X-Martin Luther King-Mandela resonance came into things. It just fit."

Clairmont made the two friends as children and added the backstory of Magneto's survival in a Nazi concentration camp. One of the first mentions was in Uncanny X-Men #150 (1981) with art by Dave Cockrum.

Sales soared and he's considered the Godfather of the X-Men. Some of his contributions have been attributed to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. But the timing makes it highly unlikely or impossible.

4. The Timing is Wrong

On its face, it seems plausible that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. could have inspired the mutant hero and villain. But the timing is wrong. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to prominence during the "Montgomery Bus Boycott" starting December 5, 1955, which made national news. This isn't implying he wasn't known. But certainly not well enough to inspire two white men in New York to base a comic book character on.

Malcolm X was thrust into the spotlight on July 13, 1959, when the five-part special "The Hate that Hate Produced" aired. It's a television documentary that explored the "dangers" of Black Nationalism in America and specifically the Nation of Islam. They interviewed a number of prominent leaders of the Nation including Malcolm X. His fiery comments caught attention.

Again, while he was a charismatic man it's not likely that Stan Lee or Jack Kirby would inspire a superhero and super-villain so soon after they achieved national attention.

Chris Clairmont later implied that their assassinations served as motivation for the creation of the characters. "It was too close," Clairmont told CNN. "It had only been a few years since the assassinations. In a way, it seemed like that would be too raw. 

But he's wrong. Malcolm X was shot and killed on February 21, 1965. That's two years AFTER Magneto first appeared in comics. Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. That means the civil rights icon was killed five years after Charles Xavier first appeared.

5. No One Can "Confirm" Who Professor X and Magneto Are Based on

No credible source says Professor X is based on Martin Luther King Jr. I don't have space to list them all but I'll list a couple. Wikipedia says "Professor Xavier's character development has been inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr" and references "The Unauthorized X-Men: SF and Comic Writers on Mutants, Prejudice, and Adamantium". But that book isn't talking about the comic. It's talking about the 90s animated series.

"The show became, under [Syndey Iwanter's] guidance, an allegory about race relations, with mutants persecuted in the same manner as African Americans in pre-civil rights America (albeit heightened to superheroic, science-fiction levels)," the book writes. "Professor X thus became a Martin Luther King figure: Each man had a dream of mankind looking past its differences to live together in harmony (consistent with the comics but revolutionary for a Saturday morning cartoon). Magneto was Malcolm X, seeking to liberate his people from oppression by any means necessary (again, consistent with the comics but revolutionary for a Saturday morning cartoon)."

Screenrant also lists the rumor as "verified" quoting Stan Lee in 2008 saying "[I] did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He was just trying to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist. He was trying to defend mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly, he decided to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course, but I never thought of him as a villain."

But that's not confirmation either. In fact, there's only one time when he directly answered the question if he based Professor X on Martin Luther King Jr. and Magneto on Malcolm X.

6. Did the Creators of the X-Men Say Professor X and Magneto Are Based on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X?

The late Stan Lee is a legend and created dozens of amazing characters. But he was also known for being an elaborate showman. So it's not surprising that Lee didn't do much to counter the rumor he based Xavier and Eric on the civil rights leaders. But he got close.

Back in 2018, Stan Lee did an interview with Rolling Stone where they asked him if the characters were based on Dr. King and Malcolm X. He said, "I think it was certainly an unconscious feeling" which isn't a confirmation one way or the other. Typical Stan Lee. Gotta love him.

Jack Kirby never addressed the creation of his characters and never said one way or the other if Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto are based on Martin Luthre King Jr. and Malcolm X.

So, while the creators never specifically said that Professor X is based on Martin Luther King Jr. and Magneto is based on Malcolm X it's highly unlikely. The characters are nothing like the civil rights leaders and were created very soon after they achieved national attention.

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