It took more than a year of boycotting, but in December 1956 the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama ended its policy of segregated seating. The leader of the boycott, now attracting national attention, was just twenty seven years old. What would he do next?
Ebony magazine asked if Martin Luther King, Jr. would like to write an advice column, and he agreed. “Let the man that led the Montgomery boycott lead you into happier living,” promotional material for the column shouted. Over the next year, King would respond to a motley batch of letters written by black and white Americans. Some asked for his advice on questions concerning race, but most did not. King was asked and answered questions about family, relationships, aging, religion, and much else. Ordinary men and, often, women wrote with their concerns about how to live a good life, how to do the right thing.
There was a black couple living in Mississippi who were worried their children would grow up to hate whites. A handsome minister’s wife worried about female congregants’ less-than-spiritual affections directed at her husband. A man with a bad temper realized he was hurting those around him but could not calm himself. King received questions about premarital virginity, birth control, divorce, and homosexuality. People wrote in to ask his views on nuclear weapons, gambling, and the death penalty. One advice-seeker had an 80-year-old relative undergoing a “second childhood,” developing new habits of gossiping, whisky drinking, and swearing, leaving King’s correspondent at wit’s end.
King was a preacher and theologian, and he is often cast in the role of prophet, but he was also a pastor. In the advice he dispensed to Ebony readers, King was not thundering against the evils of segregation, economic injustice, and imperialism – but he remained mindful of the ways systems of domination distort ethical life. Nor did King invoke God’s law to support a list of do’s and don’ts that would regulate behavior. For King, God’s law condemns segregation, unfettered capitalism, and imperialism, it illumines social sin, but God’s law is not the place to start when considering questions of personal conduct.
Reading all of King’s advice columns together, we find him employing four steps as he responds to the questions posed to him. First, he encourages his correspondents to be suspicious of their initial perception of their problem. Too often people see what they want to see when it comes to family, relationships, themselves, and, of course, religion. When a widow in her mid-50s writes in about her new, 28 year old beau – “I love this man deeply and I’m sure he loves me. I’m sure my late husband would understand.” – King responds that “love must always be tempered with reason.” What the woman perceives as true love may be something else, and deeper reflection on the situation is necessary. King tells a man who writes in claiming that his 21 years of marriage “have all been hell,” saying his wife takes no interest in him and keeps their home “dusty and dirty,” that he ought to spend some time in “self-analysis,” reflecting on how his own behavior might be affecting his wife and on whether the marriage really was so unpleasant for two decades.
Second, King urges his correspondents to attend to the social sins shaping their worlds – and distorting their perception. Sometimes this is racism, but other times he points to gender or other factors. These social sins run against God’s law, but they are realities that we must grapple with, instead of ignore, when we are navigating life in the world. On questions regarding interracial marriage, King asserts “there is nothing morally wrong with an interracial marriage,” but he adds that “social obstacles” cannot be ignored. At the end of the day, “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.” On a question about birth control, King worries that society encourages us to see women as merely “breeding machines,” and once we disavow ourselves of such views we see that birth control can be part of healthy family planning.
Realizing that our perception is distorted and the world is systemically fallen does not mean we are stuck making bad decisions. To counteract our own confusion, King often counsels reaching out to community elders, pastors, or relatives to solicit their advice. In other words, rather than accepting the role into which he is thrust, of spiritual sage decreeing what is to be done, King reminds his correspondents that they already have people in their lives who know them, know their particular circumstances, and can offer guidance. The only moral guidance that can be offered from above, from King’s point of view, is about the evils of social sin. For all other questions, moral guidance ought to come from alongside, from the wisdom of a community distilled by elders and pastors. The local pastor will know what to do about that octogenarian experiencing a “second childhood.”
What King really means is that once you have realized your perception is distorted, once you have named the systems of domination that cloud the world, and once you have turned to your community for advice, there are no magic formulas that will get you to the right decision.
The final stage in King’s advice for living may sound trite: following your conscience, or, put another way, practical wisdom. What King really means is that once you have realized your perception is distorted, once you have named the systems of domination that cloud the world, and once you have turned to your community for advice, there are no magic formulas that will get you to the right decision. To think that there are – to delegate moral discernment to the system of some philosopher or even some theologian – will certainly lead you astray. If we can access the image of God at the center of our humanity, pushing away layer upon layer of distortion, we will surely do the right thing. In the fallen world this is impossible; beneath each layer of distortion is another. But it is all we have, and we must try to fail better.
King did not always get things right in the advice he dispensed. Sometimes his answers were too easy. He tells the man with the bad temper to “concentrate on the higher virtue of calmness.” To the black parents worried that their children would hate whites, he replied, “You should teach your children at an early age that it is both morally wrong and psychologically harmful to hate anyone” – not particularly practical advice.
At other times, King is not sufficiently attentive to patriarchy. While he affirms that “marriage is a cooperative enterprise,” he flatly states that “the primary obligation of the woman is to motherhood.” To the wife of a physically abusive alcoholic, King urges that she endure the brutality “a little longer” so that she “might contribute to your husband’s rediscovery of himself.” King urges the wife of a philanderer to observe what virtues the man’s mistress may possess so she can imitate them and become more desirable herself. To a young man worried about his homosexual inclinations, King urges a visit to the psychiatrist.
Failing better: this is what King advises, and what he models. He does not purport to have all the answers, and those he does have are bound by his own limited capacity to perceive the world rightly. Yet King models a balance between a prophetic commitment to higher law and a pastoral attention to the complexities of ordinary life. As he writes in one column, “I feel that religion, while remaining true to absolute moral standards, should forever help individuals adjust to the changing problems of life.”
On this, the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination, let us not only remember King’s life as prophetic critic but also his advice for living. Let us speak out with and beyond King against the continuing injustices of racism, capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. But let us also interrogate our own distorted perceptions of self and world, consult with the elders in our communities, and enter the fray of ethical life guided by conscience.