Professor X isn’t Martin Luther King, and Magneto isn’t Malcolm X, either.

April 3rd, 2013 by | Tags: , , ,

It’s hard to boil someone down to one position, but I think it’s fair to say that Martin Luther King wanted America to deliver on its original promise: that all men are created equal and therefore deserve the same rights, access, and opportunities. His preferred method of doing so was non-violent resistance, essentially making himself into a martyr to show exactly how unfair America truly is. I like this paragraph from his “I Have A Dream” speech:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

“Put up or shut up.”

Of course, non-violent resistance doesn’t mean that you fold at the first sign of hate. King kept guns for protection, and many of his peers did, as well. Owning a gun is their right under the laws of America, and it’s a right that’s well worth exercising, depending on your situation. It seems weird at first blush, but think it through: non-violent resistance doesn’t mean that you let someone kill you at their leisure. Non-violent resistance is a focused tactic, something you do intentionally. Self-protection exists apart from that, right?

Malcolm X is harder to boil down, and he’s been put into competition with MLK so often that it’s hard to define him as his own thing sometimes. I like these quotes, though:

This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separatist Black Muslim movement, and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans who are only attempting to enjoy their rights as free human beings, that you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who are not hand-cuffed by the disarming philosophy of nonviolence, and who believe in asserting our right of self-defense — by any means necessary.

“This a hands off policy. Y’all touch him, we riding.” –Young Jeezy.

I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.

“You can get with this, or you can get with that.” –Black Sheep.

I like these quotes because they both show a better picture of the relationship between King and Malcolm X, later El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, than the usual narrative does. America likes to place them in conflict with each other, but the truth was much more nuanced. They didn’t see eye-to-eye, but they were both working toward the same goal, and they knew that.

Malcolm was more willing to be the devil than Martin was. He was willing to be the demon that America deserved, while Martin was able to become something different, something softer. Both approaches have their merits, and they aren’t necessarily fundamentally opposed. If America resisted Martin’s soft approach, Malcolm made it clear that he was right around the corner with a harder approach. “Deal with him or deal with me.”

Personally, I identify with Malcolm a lot more than Martin. I’ve had a copy of “The Ballot or The Bullet” in my Dropbox for years now, and it remains one of my favorite things to read. There is a directness to Malcolm’s approach that I appreciate and try to emulate. “You better give me the respect I deserve or I’ma take it by force.” Malcolm is bigger than his rep as the white-hating, bigoted side of the civil rights movement. That’s too small and too inaccurate an idea for him.

But it’s that idea that led to the idea of Martin and Malcolm in competition, which led directly to the idea that Professor Xavier of the X-Men and Magneto of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants are the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of the mutant rights movement.

It’s an easy comparison to make, considering Xavier’s position as angel and Magneto’s as demon, but it’s wrong on basically every single level. Professor X drafted children into a paramilitary unit under the guise of educating them, and then sent them out to fight other mutants. They’re essentially a self-police force for the mutant people. When you step out of line, they’ll step on you. This was later explored when X-Factor and Freedom Force became government-sponsored squads, a kind of walking, talking COINTELPRO.

Magneto is the other side of the fence. Where Xavier wants mutants to coexist with humans, Magneto is a mutant supremacist and terrorist. He murders humans, he brutalizes mutants, and anyone who stands in his way is found wanting and considered a traitor. Magneto is a murderer with ideals, when you boil it down.

Neither character bears any resemblance to Martin or Malcolm, outside of a short-sighted and frankly ignorant idea of what Martin or Malcolm represent. People have said it, but that doesn’t make it true.

Professor X uses violent methods to get what he wants and to police his people. Magneto uses violent methods to oppress another species and is an actual terrorist.

Martin & Malcolm wanted America to deliver on its promise. Professor X and Magneto are the hero and villain of an adventure comic. Any connection between the two sets of people is based on inaccurate data. Any comparison between the two has no leg to stand on.

There is no relation in tactics, approach, or personality.

Similar Posts:

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon

14 comments to “Professor X isn’t Martin Luther King, and Magneto isn’t Malcolm X, either.”

  1. I think all of the points you made are valid but I do think that people had a certain idea of what those two men are and that (uninformed idea) is probably what spurred Stan and Jack to make the X-Men.

  2. Good write-up! It’s also like… being willing to defend himself against white aggressors/supremacy (I don’t believe he actually was ever violent–just willing to be, if attacked) makes Malcolm X a terrorist like Magneto? What does that say about the people making the comparison?

    What we’ve been fed about Malcolm is that he was a reactionary stick-in-the-mud at best, and a violent bigot at worst. Either way he’s the guy standing in the way of MLK’s dream… you know, instead of all those white people. It’s just more “don’t rock the (white people’s) boat” BS. And fans making the comparison out of ignorance are buying into that. But I’m more down on the narrative surrounding Malcolm than some X-Men fans who never read his Autobiography.

  3. @Will Carper: I think it really says that people don’t view Magneto as a terrorist, much in the same way that they don’t really view Doctor Doom as a genocidal dictator, more than it says that they think X was a terrorist.

    I told David Uzumeri over the Twitter that I thought the Alex/Scott pair was closer to MLK/X, but the more I think about it, that’s like saying we’re closer to the sun than Mars. I mean, we are, but in the grand scheme of things, not so much.

  4. @David Fairbanks: I think what’s appealing about Magneto is that, at times, he’s reformed. Depending on the writer or the decade, he works hard to make up for being a terrorist/murderer/all around bad dude. But Malcolm X was never that. Magneto wouldn’t be as appealing if he didn’t have that history of sinking submarines and trying to reverse the Earth’s poles.

  5. Yeah, the Malcolm X/MLK comparison with the X-Men is at best a desperate grasp at relevance and at worst borderline offensive.

    I find a more apt comparison to be God and Satan in Paradise Lost. God/Professor X is the omnipotent, benevolent dude who’s nontheless kind of a smug dick, and Satan/Magneto is the villain who’s nontheless very persuasive and like ten times as interesting as his counterpart.

  6. Another big problem with the Xavier/MLK comparison is that Professor X wasn’t publicly known as a mutant until Morrison’s New X-Men, right? In that regard, it’s hard to see him really as a civil rights leader. Instead he’s just a “mutant expert” who shows up on TV to debate the merits of destroying all mutants with robots. Except he has his own secret army and superpowers. The comparison really just falls apart under scrutiny.

  7. If people want a Marvel comic with MLK and Malcom X I could swear I read this weird one where Black Panther and some of the Fantastic Four (he was in it then I believe) go to some planet full of Skrulls, including two who make themselves appear as the leaders. That’s about all I remember besides there was also flying cars.

  8. Very well explained.

  9. You know, I have to agree with the idea that Malcom X, moreso in the later years, was very supportive of being treated equally and freedom for all people. I’m paraprasing since I don’t feel like searching for the quite, but he did say “I believe in equality for all people, but as a black man I am most interested in fighting for black people. But if you fight for the same thing no matter who you come from I will support you.” Malcolm saw that in some case he would have to use the closed hand rather than the open fist, but the fact that he was talking in the open about it rather than making violent moves in private speaks volumes as to what he tried to accomplish.

    I think the Martin/Malcolm dynamic is a lot more prevalent in the current X-men polarity between Wolverine and Cyclops. Both are trying to achieve peace and equality, but Wolverine is trying to put his weapons down to exist peacefully and Cyclops is focused on meeting the price of fear head on. The dialogue in All New X-Men #10 was great showing where each of their heads were.

  10. Good point on gun usage/gun control there. I’m sure you’re more than sick of talking about it at this point, but still curious…you make some excellent allusion to the establishment knack of sloppily generalizing in order box a situation with simplistic metaphor, but that kind of opens a can of worms for me.

    Can a metaphor be built in these terms of story(superheroes, kung-fu films, etc) without assuming both sides of such a conflict to be inherently dangerous? Sloppy, fascist, ubermensch-y origins aside, it seems to me there’s an unconscious narrative of exclusion going on there, where both sides are somewhat inherently fascist and volatile. To a pacifist, this reinforces the status quo as it was pre-activism, no? Being white, it’s hard for me to read clearly.

    Is this form of violence vs. violence necessary in heroic narrative, are we forgetting to look at how this is framed as largely a byproduct of american supremacism, and therefore an inherently american reading of the material, or what?

  11. @David Fairbanks: We are 150 million km from the Sun and 80 million m from Mars. Did you get them mixed up?

  12. Maybe it speaks to the strong and much-lampooned desire on the part of some white people to find a small set of easily-identified spokespeople for all blacks everywhere, or analogues for those spokespeople in this case.

    I’d even say maybe less a desire . . . than a real fear of not finding those people and, along with them, a shortcut to understanding what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, something for which the distinction you describe sometimes serves as (wrongheaded) shorthand: MLK = acceptable discourse, Malcolm X = too far and thus fair game for pushback. Once those mystical spokespeople have been identified, in other words, then they can be separated out into the spokespeople white people have to listen to and the ones they can ignore or silence.

    The endless reposting of that Morgan Freeman video across the Internet suggests that too, as I see it. Freeman offers his point of view, which is fair enough; he doesn’t offer any argument that serves as a response, in the way people have hoped to use the video as a response to other people’s arguments about the visibility of race. Using that video as an argument or part of an argument comes across, to me, as a kind of indignation that anyone, black or white, wouldn’t grant Morgan Freeman the impossible role described above.

  13. And yet another way the analogy falls apart: MLK Jr was not about race as much as poverty in his final few years. That’s a point that gets glossed over, because it’s much more comfortable to reduce him to “nice guy who recommended harmony a long time ago” than someone who still challenges our economic system, to say nothing of our foreign policy.

    How did Archbishop Helder Camara once put it? “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

  14. @Chunky Style: That’s a great point. The deeper one’s understanding of history, the more fully one realizes that economic, racial and nationalist issues all intertwine and it’s impossible to separate capitalist exploitation from racial oppression in America. MLK’s focus on poverty underlines that. This makes me want to read an academic analysis of MLK’s speeches through the Marxist lens, I think it’d be interesting.