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Stan Lee used his platform to call out racism in the 1960s — and he never stopped

Washington Post comic book critic David Betancourt remembers legendary writer and editor Stan Lee and explains how and why he will be remembered. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

″Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” Stan Lee once declared.

The comic book visionary wrote those words in 1968, the year that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. But his message — a pointed condemnation of racial, ethnic and religious hatred — would resonate across decades. Last year, in the wake of deadly violence spurred by a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Lee shared those same words on Twitter, writing that the message was “as true today as it was in 1968.”

Lee’s words again resurfaced Monday as news spread that the revered writer and editor, who helped create some of the Marvel universe’s most iconic characters, had died at 95.

Stan Lee, creator of superheroes, dies at 95

Near the end of Lee’s 1968 message, which appeared in his trademark monthly column, “Stan’s Soapbox,” he offered this wish: “Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance.” These words are part of Lee’s long legacy of confronting and denouncing bigotry — a legacy that is inextricably linked to the stories told in Marvel comics.

“Marvel has always been and always will be a reflection of the world right outside our window,” Lee said told fans last fall in a widely shared video. “That world may change and evolve, but the one thing that will never change is the way we tell our stories of heroism.”

“Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender or color of their skin,” he continued. “The only things we don’t have room for are hatred, intolerance and bigotry.”

Lee and his frequent co-creator Jack Kirby famously created Black Panther in 1966. The character, an African king ruling the wealthy and technologically advanced nation of Wakanda, broke ground as the world’s first black superhero.

But other Marvel titles alluded to America’s racial division. The mutants of X-Men faced discrimination, and — as The Washington Post’s David Betancourt noted — there were references to prominent civil rights leaders in Professor Xavier, seen as a King-like figure, and his nemesis Magneto, who mirrored the more militant Malcolm X.

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“I always felt the X-Men, in a subtle way, often touched upon the subject of racism and inequality, and I believe that subject has come up in other titles, too,” Lee told The Post’s Michael Cavna in 2016. But, Lee added, “we would never pound hard on the subject, which must be handled with care and intelligence.”

In another “Stan’s Soapbox” column that circulated after his death, Lee acknowledged that “for many years, we’ve been trying, in our bumbling way, to illustrate that love is a far greater force, a far greater power than hate.”

He brought up Christ, Buddha and Moses, “men of peace,” he wrote, “whose thoughts and deeds have influenced countless millions throughout the ages — and whose presence is still felt in every corner of the earth.”

“Now consider the practitioners of hate who have sullied the pages of history,” Lee implored. “Who still venerates their words? Where is homage still paid to their memory? What banners still are raised to their cause?”

“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:

‘There will never be another Stan Lee’: Comics world, celebrities mourn the legendary creator