It’s tough to find an American over age 7 who isn’t at least somewhat familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights leadership and his most famous speeches. The “little-known” insights that pop up around his birthday — that he was more “complex,” or “hardcore,” or a stauncher advocate for the poor than most elementary school curriculums suggest — aren’t really all that little-known by most of us.
But here’s something that actually is: For a couple of years in the late 1950s, King penned an advice column for Ebony magazine. NPR‘s Gene Demby uncovered “Advice for Living” from Stanford University’s King Papers Project, and according to his review, it’s no “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Put bluntly, Demby says that at least some of the advice — which covers racial as well as personal queries — is “just really bad.”
A lot of the exchanges contained in them are fascinating because they sound like stuff you might hear in candid conversations about race today: Someone asks King why blacks don’t support black-owned businesses; another wonders why black religious leaders aren’t more forceful in condemning crime in their communities; a reader wonders why black luminaries take white partners after they become famous. But there are a lot of questions from readers seeking personal advice from King about love, sex and marriage.
Surely King might give some hints of himself in that space, right?
Alas, even here, King keeps a certain chilly distance. His prose can be almost distractingly florid, and in a lot of cases he seems more concerned with moral principle than with practicality.
And if we’re keeping it completely real here: Some of his advice is just really bad.
One reader asks King what she should do about her adulterous husband who is having an affair with a woman who lives nearby; King asks her whether she could be doing something differently to keep him from straying.
“In the meantime, 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 writes. “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.”
Another writes that her young child was killed in a car accident that left her with lingering injuries and her husband hospitalized for months. “I worry and I am lonely and I have fears,” the woman writes. “Please help me. I am 28.”