the X-Men were Black?
Comic Books and the Civil Rights Movement
Written by John Andreula
Edited by Kodid Laraque-Two Elk
Originally published here on 5280Geek.com on 8-23-19
When the X-Men #1 was released in 1963, the United States was in one of—if not the—most important years of the Civil Rights movement.
That year in Birmingham, Alabama, police officers turned high-power hoses on African-American men, women, and children as young as six. Ninety-five miles across the state then Alabama governor George Wallace gave a speech where he spoke the words, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
There were many misguided whites in the south, as well as those in leadership positions within the American government. Many others were pushing back against the obvious inequalities and injustices facing people who happened to be born with a different skin color then their own.
That same year President John F. Kennedy called for the Civil Rights Act. It was a major attempt at ending many forms of racial discrimination of the time. Although he would be assassinated in November of that year, the Civil Rights Act would be enacted in July of the following year.
On August 28th, 1963, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his immortal I Have a Dream speech. It is estimated that a quarter of a million people of all races were in attendance for his words of peace and brotherhood.
Blacks wouldn’t receive the right to vote until 1965.
So how were those of sub-Saharan descent faring in popular culture?
When the words “black movie stars of the early 1960s” are entered into an internet search engine today, literally no webpages, articles, or lists detailing anything come up. The only somewhat relevant information to be found is IMDb’s list of the 15 Biggest Stars of the 1960s. Only one black actor, Sidney Poitier, makes that list at number fourteen.
In music, African Americans fare somewhat better. A list compiled on RateYourMusic.com titled The 100 Greatest Artists of the 1960’s, ranked Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye all in the top fifteen.
But African Americans still only made up a minority of the musicians featured. And Jimi didn’t even record his first singles until 1964.
What about African Americans in comics books? Surely, there must have been some blacks represented in the artistic illustrated print medium?
Bupkis, zilch, nada.
With a few limited exceptions, black characters failed to appear in the pages of comic books and comic strips in the early 1960s or before.
There was a notable incident in the 1950’s, where a comic sci-fi story titled Judgement Day was censored by the Comics Code Authority over a character being black. The character’s face only appeared in the final panel of the last page.
Earlier in the 1940s, Timely Comics—which later went on to become MARVEL—had a comic team, Young Allies, that was spun from the pages of Captain America. Young Allies did feature an African American character. His name was “White Wash.”
It’s said he looked like a white boy in black face.
Why were there no African Americans in comic book stories?
The answer is relatively simple. There were no African Americans creating comic books.¹
People write and draw about what they know. As messed up as it is in hindsight, it makes sense that African Americans and black culture would be underrepresented, or not represented at all, in popular culture.
Which brings it all back to 1963 and the X-Men.
In September of 1963 X-Men issue #1 was printed. It was written by the legendary creative duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Uncannily, all five original X-Men, as well as their mentor Professor Charles Xavier, and their nemesis, Magneto, were all white.
It wouldn’t be until almost three years later, in 1966, that Kirby would introduce the first black character into mainstream American comic books via the pages of Fantastic Four. His creation was Black Panther.
However, T’Challa, king of Wakanda, wouldn’t get his own title until January of 1977.
Over at the other major publisher, DC Comics, John Stewart wouldn’t get his lantern and ring until December of 1971. He would be their first foray into an African American central character.
It would be slow-going for blacks and black-inspired comics for some time to come.
Today there are still significant cultural gaps between blacks and whites. Even with all the obvious African-American influence on clothing, music, and art, blacks still struggle to be represented in popular culture.
It can be expected that readers of this website are familiar with the story of the X-Men, but for the purposes of this article, here’s a brief synopsis on the chance that they are not:
Select people have an inherent genetic abnormality that gives them super-powers. The people are called “Mutants.”
Society struggles with its acceptance of this new order of evolution. Some speak out against the mutants. Other believe the only solution that will protect man from the destructive abilities of these beings is extermination.
One genetic scientist and mutant, Charles Xavier, had a dream of mutants peacefully coexisting side-by-side with regular folk. It was a dream quite similar to that of a certain reverend mentioned earlier.
Xavier opens a school for “gifted” youngsters in Westchester, New York. His mission is to teach these young mutants how to control their special abilities. Perhaps more importantly, he wanted to teach these kids how to use their powers for the good of mankind. Thus he became Professor X.
Setting up the school was not sufficient in the face of the persecution mutants were faced with. With human beings failure to willingly accept the existence of these mutants, Xavier needed to protect the school and his students. Additionally, he needed the means to extract these young people from the dangerous and tumultuous situations they found themselves in upon discovering their powers.
In the real world, Dr. King was an activist that practiced civil disobedience. Using his X-Men to carry out his initiatives, Professor X took a more active an heavy handed approach. It didn’t hurt that he also had the ability to read minds, and communicate and control others as such.
Some say Professor X is Lee and Kirby’s MLK. Those same fanboys will tell you Magneto represents Malcolm X. The comparisons are too simplistic considering the real world personalities of King and Malcolm X, as well as the complexities to the fictional characters of Xavier and Magneto.
Yet, it is impossible not to consider that both Kirby and Lee were watching the news in the early sixties. Much of world was changing. A revolution was occurring just outside the windows of their creative workspaces.
Aside from the civil rights struggles and conflicts of the time there was another socially significant period occurring in American and world history—the cold war.
The world had just born witness to the Bay of Pigs Invasion as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Korean War had ended not ten years earlier.
Even Hollywood was not exempt. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Red Scare of the 1950s forced many in the movie business out of work. Others were made to testify against their friends and coworkers. Many Americans renounced their leftist leanings and took loyalty oaths to avoid being “blacklisted.” In the context of this article, it was a very ironically named term.
So what were Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to do? If they had sketches and concepts, or the even the aspirations of creating black characters, would anyone have seen them? What would their publishers, editors, and advertisers said had they brought forth a team devised of some or all African Americans? Would their colorists have even filled in the proper shades? They certainly would have all risked being “blackballed.”
If Lee and Kirby had there’s a high likelihood that we would have never heard of the two of them today. The government certainly used subversive tactics to ensure things remained at the white dominated status quo.²
People should take a closer look at those early panels and cover art from the X-Men. Consider the overt themes of persecution, inequality, and injustice. It’s hard not to draw parallels between the struggle of the mutants and the American Civil Rights movement.
Even as recently as Brian Michael Bendis’s run with Uncanny X-Men, Cyclops can be seen on the steps of the capital building giving a speech about equality.³ This occurs months after the X-Men are violently attacked on the campus of the University of Michigan during a pro-mutant rally.
Like African Americans and other minorities, mutants never chose to be mutants. And they definitely could not change anything about their genetic make-up any more than blacks have a choice in their skin color or ancestry.
Look again at those early characters. In a more accepting and open society, Iceman, Beast, Cyclops, Jean Grae, and even Professor X might have been drawn black. You can even see the same possibilities in some of the more recent superheroes, such as Nightcrawler, Kitty Pride, Colossus, and Wolverine; or in villains like Mystique, Juggernaut, and Mr. Sinister.
It might not even be that far off to assume that was Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s original intention. Of course both have passed, Kirby in 1994 and Lee in 2018, so we’ll never know for sure.
Still, it’s a geek’s right to wonder, “WHAT IF?”
¹In rereading this piece for rerelease I recognize this statement was a big assumption on my part. It is quite possible and logical that there were many African American comic creators at the time. It’s likely that they never gained commercial success due to discrimination and its limitations, and that their works didn’t survive the transition through the century. I apologize for the assumption I cannot prove one way or the other.
²It went far beyond the government and still does to this day.
³Sorry, but I couldn’t find this issue to link to. If you haven’t figured it out by now, all of the comics I mentioned except this one feature links to readable online versions of the issues. You’re welcome.
This updated version of this article is dedicated to all underrepresented communities fighting for equality in the US and around the world today. I stand with you.
John Andreula is a geek, comic book enthusiast, and warrior of equality.
Hit him on Instagram at: