This article is from the X-Men Comic Books FAQ, by Kate the Short (firstname.lastname@example.org) with numerous contributions by others.
The basic concept of the X-Men titles is the mutant. From the first
issue of X-Men, in 1963, the creators of the X-Titles have used the idea
of the mutant as an analogy to the civil rights movement. The thing that
made the idea so compelling in the comic book field, however, was that
the Marvel world's concept of the mutant had no single real-life
counterpart, and no limit of real-life analogs. Thus, while there are no
superhuman mutants being persecuted in our society, any reader can
identify with the feelings of persecution and alienation (no matter how
well-deserved :-). The plight of the Marvel Universe mutants can
therefore be compared to the black civil rights movement, the womens'
movement, religious persecution, gay rights, and so on.
There's a book that may have inspired the X-men: "Children of the Atom"
by Wilmar Shiras. Wilmar H. Shiras was born in Boston (1908) and raised
there, but she did not start writing until she moved to California.
"CotA" originally was a series of stories published in 1948-1950,
starting with the November 1948 issue of "Astounding Science Fiction."
In the installments, a teacher gathers a group of intellectually
advanced kids who otherwise would be outcasts. Here we see the roots of
a teacher or mentor dealing with kids who are, essentially, mutants. The
chapters were collected in a paperback under the title "Children of the
Atom" (Avon Publications, New York, NY, 1953). Tilman Stieve provided
a ton of background information on the text, which I've summarized:
The children's mutation was caused by an accident in a nuclear plant in
1958 (the Helium City facility was there to make "a new type of bomb")
in which all workers were fatally irradiated, dying within 2 years. The
main part of the story is apparently set in 1972. In the first chapter,
"In Hiding," we meet Peter Welles, a psychiatrist/psychologist for the
city schools of Oakley, California. Peter meets the first of these
super-intelligent mutants, 13-year-old Timothy Paul, after he is
consulted by Timothy's teacher, Miss Emily Page, who a long time earlier
was Peter Welles's teacher.
In the second chapter, "Opening Doors", Peter and Timothy begin to look
for other mutants (orphans of other workers at the plant). Among the
first to reply to their cryptic ad "Orphans, b c 59, i q three star
plus" is one Jay Worthington(!!!). Elsie Lambeth is found in an asylum
run by Dr. Mark Foxwell. Peter Welles begins to organize a school for
these super-intelligent "Wonder Children." Miss Page becomes their
teacher, and Dr. Foxwell helps. The third chapter, "New Foundations,"
continues the organization and recruitment. Students Jay Worthington and
Stella Oates appear for the first time. In the fourth chapter,
"Problems," more and more children are gathered at the school and the
teaching begins in earnest.
In the fifth chapter, "Children of the Atom", the school stuff
continues, but then Tommy Mundy, a TV preacher, begins to rant against
the "inhuman monsters" and the mortal danger the Children of the Atom
supposedly pose to mankind "hidden under the disguise of a school for
gifted children." (This is pretty close to Xavier's "gifted youngsters,"
and Mundy is a character not unlike the villain in "God Loves, Man
Kills.") An angry mob shows up at the gates, but it can be pacified,
partly because some of the kids, such as Timothy Paul, are known by the
locals and regarded as non-threatening. Tim Paul then says he wants to
return to grade school and has this rather interesting bit (considering
some of the problems the X-teams would go on to have) to say about the
sudden fears of ordinary citizens:
None of this would have happened if we had not cut ourselves off
from the world and from almost everybody in it. As long as we lived
like other kids, nobody hated us, nobody feared us, nobody was
against us. Some of you said, and the magazines and things said,
that I saved us from real trouble by talking to the crowd. But it
wasn't what I said or what I did, it was that somebody knew me.
Some of them knew Miss Page and some knew Dr. Welles. But if you
strangers to town, and the other strangers who will come, shut
yourselves up here and live inside this fence, nobody will know
And so, in the end, they decide to rejoin the human race.
The "nobody hated us, nobody feared us" line above sounds a lot like
the X-Men concept of defending "a world that hates and fears them." Even
if Stan Lee and Jack Kirby weren't inspired by the book, the "Children
of the Atom" tagline has been used by multiple X-Men writers to refer to