Martin Luther King Jr., the advice columnist

August 25, 2011

“There can be unity where there is not uniformity.”

That’s the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a powerful sentiment — and an instructive one, especially in this era of hyperpartisanship — but you won’t find it anywhere on the 450-foot inscription wall that makes up part of the MLK National Memorial. Actually, you won’t find it in most tributes to the late civil rights leader, because he wrote it in June 1958 to a concerned churchgoer as part of a magazine advice column.

That magazine was Ebony, and, for a little over a year between 1957 and 1958, the black-owned monthly published a King-penned series called “Advice for Living.” At the time, King was just starting to come to international prominence: In February 1957, he made his first appearance on the cover of Time, thanks to his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott. He had already appeared in Ebony numerous times when the magazine’s editors, inspired — and overwhelmed — by the volume of mail addressed to King, asked him to pen an advice column. “Let the man that led the Montgomery boycott lead you into happier living,” read an advertisement in Ebony’s sister publication, Jet.

“I’m surprised people haven’t paid more attention” to “Advice for Living,” says David Garrow, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” “Most of King’s sermons and speeches are coming from the same mental database of biblical stories, but this column gives you a window onto the person that you don’t get from reading the transcript of the sermon he gave the preceding Sunday.”

In addition to proffering guidance on everything from marital strife to institutional racism, King’s column was notable for what it symbolized: the mainstreaming of the black experience. As Clayborne Carson, the director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, puts it, “Advice for Living” functioned as a sort of Kinsey Report, exposing both the distinctiveness and commonality of a population — in this case, the black middle class.

“The column exposed the variety within the readership of Ebony, showing that not all people within the black community have similar characteristics and lives,” explains Carson.

Adds Garrow, “I think it was about establishing to the black middle class that black people are normal and equal.”

“Advice for Living” was also remarkable in terms of its content. King did not purport to have all the answers, and, for the most part, avoided making blanket condemnations, perhaps because of the dualities and hypocrisies in his own life. In response to one reader, a preacher’s wife concerned by the amount of female attention bestowed upon her husband, King said, “Almost every minister has the problem of confronting women in his congregation whose interests are not entirely spiritual . . . but if he carries himself in a manner representative of the highest mandates of Christian living, his very person will discourage their approaches.”

“Remember, this was an era when a common joke was that any upstanding preacher negotiated with the deacon board for a salary, parsonage and pick of the choir,” says Taylor Branch, author of the prize-winning trilogy “America in the King Years.” “But he couldn’t talk about that, because he was trying to make his name known and establish a record of wholesome conservative values for the civil rights movement.”

“There are a lot of contradictions between what he wrote and his personal philosophies,” says Tamura Lomax, an independent scholar with specialties in African American studies and feminist theory. “He was kind of in a prison. He couldn’t say, ‘Look, when I’m on the road, I have relations, as well,’ so he had to present this idea of the pristine figure, this kind of public piety.”

In that sense, “Advice for Living” is as much a revealing, internal conversation as a ministration to Ebony readership. This is particularly true with regard to gender politics, which, not surprisingly, made up the majority of the queries and was one of King’s biggest blind spots.

King’s response to a cheated-on wife was to suggest that she “study” her rival to learn what her husband wanted in a woman. (“Are you careful with your grooming? Do you nag?” he asked.) He informed an unmarried woman grappling with whether to have sex that “real men still respect purity and virginity” and instructed an abused wife to determine whether there was anything within her personality to justify such treatment. “Are you sure that you have a radiating personality, a pleasant disposition, and that feminine charm which every man admires?” he asked a Miss Lonelyhearts. To a newlywed having troubles with her mother-in-law, he remarked, “There is an expression that no home is big enough to have two women at its head.”

“Doc thought of a wife as a support worker, not a partner,” says Garrow, whose book details Coretta Scott King’s frustration with her husband’s insistence that she devote all her energy to her family. “I remember [ranking Southern Christian Leadership Conference member] Dorothy Cotton saying to me in 1979 or 1980 that if Martin had lived, he would have had an awful lot of growing up to do on gender issues.”

To be fair, there are moments in which King shows gender enlightenment: To a mother of seven who wrote in complaining that her husband wouldn’t use birth control, King said, “It is a serious mistake to suppose that it is a religious act to allow nature to have its way in the sex life . . . women must be considered more than ‘breeding machines.’ ” To a woman whose husband was allowed to go out alone but wouldn’t extend the same courtesy to her, King said time alone “is a privilege which should come to husband and wife alike.” And after a stay-at-home mom lamented that her husband had never given her spending money, King all but called the situation immoral.

“I don’t think there had been a column like that from a national leader,” says Bennett, who agreed to cease publication of the column after the assassination attempt on King in September 1958. “It was a hard thing to pull off.”

“Some of [his answers] would not pass muster these days,” concedes Carson. “But remember that this [was written] more than a decade before women’s rights became a major public issue. I think if he’d been writing it later, he’d have been more outspoken. Coretta would have educated him some.”

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