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.”