For more than a year, the 28-year-old King dispensed nuggets of wisdom, advice and, at times, surprisingly dated admonishments to readers of the black-owned monthly publication Ebony.
ATLANTA — “Let the man that led the Montgomery boycott lead you into happier living.”
That was part of an advertisement in the September 1957 edition of Jet magazine, announcing the debut of a new advice columnist on the pages of its sister publication, Ebony: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
For more than a year, the 28-year-old King — who had successfully led one of the most important boycotts in the country’s history years before he would win a Nobel Peace Prize — dispensed nuggets of wisdom, advice and, at times, some surprisingly dated admonishments to readers of the black-owned monthly publication.
He touched on race but spent the bulk of his time dealing with marital and family issues, finances, class and sex.
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It was “Advice for Living.”
“For me, this period was very interesting,” said King biographer Clayborne Carson, who published the columns in the fourth volume of the “Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.” “I am always trying to get beneath the public King, and for him to write a column like that gives you a glimpse at what he is thinking. His ideas on these matters — outside of his role as a civil-rights leader — are much more personal.”
While the columns have mostly faded from memory, Alveda King, King’s eldest niece, said she remembers them vividly, calling that time the last calm period in her family “before the bombings and killings.”
King was killed 48 years ago this month.
To a black woman who wanted to marry her white lover: “If persons entering such a marriage are thoroughly aware of these obstacles and feel that they have the power and stability to stand up amid them, then there is no reason why these persons should not be married.”
To a 50-something widow in love with a 28-year-old who her friends say is after her money: “With such a tremendous age gap, there is little possibility for compatibility, either physically or emotionally. It is probably true that you love this young man, but love must always be tempered with reason.”
And to a 17-year-old gospel musician who wants to play rock ’n’ roll, King says the two forms of music are incompatible and he therefore has to choose: “The profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with the transitory quality of rock and roll music. The former serves to lift men’s souls to higher levels of reality, and therefore to God; the latter so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths. Never seek to mix the two.”
Fresh off leading the Montgomery bus boycotts, King had started to establish himself as a national and international figure.
In January 1957, he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and appeared on the cover of Time magazine for the first time a month later. In March, he went to Africa for the independence celebration of Ghana, and in May his “Give Us the Ballot” speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom was his first major address in front of a national audience.
“It was certainly the period where he emerged as the leader who transcended the movement that produced him,” said Carson, the director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. “This was the beginning of the time that he became the Martin Luther King Jr. that we know now.”
It is no wonder that Lerone Bennett, the associate editor of Ebony, a Morehouse graduate and a former reporter for the Atlanta Daily World, approached King in the summer of 1957 about writing for Ebony.
Bennett would send the readers’ letters to King in Montgomery, where he was still pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. King’s secretary, Maude Ballou, likely typed his responses and mailed them back.
The first column ran in the September 1957 issue.
While the column was practical, as Carson said, it provided glimpses into King’s thinking and how the church and era molded him.
In January 1958, someone wrote: “I am a boy, but I feel about boys the way I ought to feel about girls.”
King’s first response was that the boy’s feelings were not uncommon and that it was probably “culturally acquired.”
“I would suggest that you see a good psychiatrist who can assist you in bringing to the forefront of conscience all of those experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit. You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it.”
King didn’t shy away from controversial topics.
“He was a church pastor and these are things that might come up in his pastoral work, particularly when the church played a more central role,” Carson said. “The minister was someone who church members could go to with problems. Black people didn’t go to psychologists.”
In some of the letters, King also confronted — broadly — issues that could have applied to him.
“Almost every minister has the problem of confronting women in his congregation whose interests are not entirely spiritual,” he wrote to a pastor’s wife who feared her preacher husband was being tempted by female parishioners. “But if he carries himself in a manner representative of the highest mandates of Christian living, his very person will discourage their approaches.”
Some people might call him a hypocrite, said Alveda King, alluding to FBI allegations that King was not always faithful.
“My uncle, my father (A.D. King), my grandfather, were all men of God. But they knew that when you slip, you repent,” she said. “They were clear on what was right and wrong and what to do when you stumbled.”
Not surprisingly, many of the letters were written by women, seeking advice on what would now be considered gender politics. And looking at the era through a 21st-century lens, some of King’s responses might seem out of touch.
In an August 1958 exchange, King tells a mother whose husband is having an affair with a neighbor to seek out a marriage counselor. But deeper in the column, he tells the woman — who doesn’t believe in divorce — to look at herself, and her rival.
“Since the other person is so near, you might study her and see what she does for your husband that you might not be doing,” King wrote. “Do you spend too much time with the children and the house and not pay attention to him? Are you careful with your grooming? Do you nag? Do you make him feel important … like somebody? This process of introspection might help you to hit upon the things that are responsible for your husband’s other affair.”
Today, some of King’s advice wouldn’t be considered politically correct.
“In reading these, you see that he is progressive, but also a man of his times and age,” Carson said. “They were probably the politically correct answers of the 1950s.”
Alveda King defends her uncle’s writings. “What he was saying was not old-fashioned. It was and still is the truth,” she said. “It was a genuine period in his life and he was doing his best. Did he follow all of the rules? No, but he tried the best he could.”
King’s sister, Christine King Farris, who said she gave her younger brother more advice than he gave her, described the columns as an extension of his ministry that prove simply that King was no different from anyone else.
“He was an everyday person, living like we all live,” Farris said. “I want people to think of him as an everyday person, not someone who is unattainable or unreachable.”
As the 1950s drew to an end, King’s activities increased. In September 1958, aside from all of his other activities and growing family responsibilities, he published his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.”
Staffers and members of the SCLC urged him to remain focused.
“People in his organization were saying he was spread too thin,” Carson said. “(SCLC Executive Director) Ella Baker was saying that. He needed to get back to being a protest leader.”
Then on Sept. 20, 1958, during a book signing in Harlem, King was stabbed and nearly died.
It’s unclear how many unpublished columns were on file at that time. But after the stabbing, King essentially let the column go.
Ballou, King’s secretary, sent Ebony what is assumed to be the last column on Oct. 28, although the magazine continued to publish them through December. In that last column, King answers two questions about the stabbing.
“My future plans include a few more weeks of convalescing which my physicians strongly urge,” he wrote to someone asking what was next for him. “After that, I plan to rejoin the ranks of those who are working ceaselessly for the realization of the ideal of freedom and justice for all men. I do not have the slightest intention of turning back at this point.”