The Americans are at a crossroads as they must confront its tumultuous history of racial oppression. 11 days after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, unrest continues to rage on across the United States. Considering the long-standing struggle for racial equality all over the globe, we at The Cultured explore racism through the lens of pop culture, analysing the significance of the Civil Rights movement as well as how the X-Men became a metaphor for racial struggle.
Debuting in the 1960s, the X-Men were introduced as a subspecies of humans who are born with superhuman abilities. However, the mutants are not all powerful. Due to the existential threat that they pose to mankind, the humans hate and fear the mutants. The conflict between mutants and humans is often compared to real-world conflicts experienced by minority groups in America, such as African Americans. The X-Men comic books and films are often about two conflicting mutant groups with the goal to attain equality, though through different methods in achieving said equality.
Though it was not intentional in the beginning, the metaphor extended to the characters themselves. Professor Xavier and his firm belief in harmonious human-mutant coexistence serve as a stand-in for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whereas Magneto’s headstrong attitude towards the defence of mutantkind reflected the philosophy of Malcolm X. While both King and Malcolm emerged as prominent voices in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, they differed in their ideology and approaches to solving racial inequality.
Best known for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, King became an important figure in the history of humanitarian rights. Like King, Xavier strives to serve a greater good by advocating peaceful coexistence and equality between humans and mutants in a world where zealous anti-mutant bigotry is widespread. As apparent in his “I Have a Dream” speech, King maintained a vision for a more diverse America where all people enjoyed the benefits of equality, during a time when the opposition implemented legislation that withheld rights from people of colour.
On the other hand, Malcolm X is celebrated for empowering African American to defend themselves, by any means necessary, against violence. Malcolm was quoted saying, “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone: but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the grave.” Following the ideas of black nationalism, Malcolm perceives that racist practices are a result of the failures of society and understood them as the logic of the system. Emulating the ideology of Malcolm, Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants seeks to overturn the existing political institutions through revolutionary means (which is by no means a dig at Malcolm X, considering Magneto is one of the greatest comic book characters of all time).
Chris Claremont, the legendary writer behind X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, offered a deeper insight into the X-Men’s connections to the African-American Civil Rights Movement in a 2011 CNN interview, specifically in regard to his work:
“It was too close. It had only been a few years since the [Martin Luther King and Malcolm X] assassinations. In a way, it seemed like that would be too raw. My resonance to Magneto and Xavier was borne more out of the Holocaust. 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.”
King and Malcolm X may have been opposites at the start of their time in the public eye. However, they influenced each other when it comes to black dignity and citizenship over time. King, while never giving up on nonviolence as a personal philosophy and political strategy, came to embrace envelope-pushing demonstrations of civil disobedience as critical to redeeming America’s racially wounded soul. On the flip side, Malcolm X was reaching out to King before he broke away from the Nation of Islam and embraced Sunni Islam after a pilgrimage to Mecca.
After Malcolm’s assassination, King wrote to his widow, Betty Shabazz: “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem”.
Despite the terrible history of racial oppression towards African Americans in the United States, King understood that there could be no path forward that involved cleaving the interests of blacks and whites. On the flip side, if it were not for public figures like Malcolm X, King’s message of harmony would not have been so desperately needed and widely embraced. Malcolm and King, when taken together, made the answer towards racism apparent: we have gotten to a point where we must love each other or die.
Terrence Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, has pleaded for peace at the site where his brother died, saying destruction is “not going to bring my brother back at all”. Floyd ultimately led the crowd through a series of chants, including “Peace on the left, justice on the right,” as if to say the two must go hand in hand.
The sheer scale of riots and destruction happening in the U.S. does not honour the legacy of George Floyd in any way. In fact, the unrest is a culmination of decades of precedent and a series of immediate factors — a police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man who later died, a pandemic that cost millions of jobs as well as police brutality against unarmed protesters.
Like Professor Xavier, King would have been appalled by the level of violence that has engulfed the United States. While he acknowledged that there is often an understandable anger underlying riots, his stance on the matter could not have been any clearer in his “The Other America” speech:
“Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impracticable for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.”
The late Stan Lee, creator of X-Men, made his stance on racial inequality, brutality and violence clear. “Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or color of their skin,” Lee said in a 2017 video published by Marvel. “The only things we don’t have room for are hatred, intolerance, and bigotry.”
Following his death, a “Stan’s Soapbox” column circulated online where he wrote about his efforts to illustrate that love is a far greater force, a far greater power than hate. “The power of love — and the power of hate. Which is most truly enduring?” Lee continued. “When you tend to despair…let the answer sustain you.”
Read more: Should We Look Forward to MCU’s X-Men?