January 16, 2017

“Maintain a wholesome attitude at all times and a radiant personality”: When Martin Luther King wrote an advice column


Martin Luther King whiteA few weeks ago, we published Martin Luther King, Jr: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. For reasons that are probably pretty clear, we’re feeling that right now is an excellent moment to visit with Dr. King’s words.

This excerpt from the book is drawn from 1958, when Dr. King was writing an advice column for Ebony magazine. While much has, of course, changed in the social context surrounding the questions being asked here, there remains a great deal of wisdom in King’s approaches to answering them:


EBONY READER: I am a white man (so-called), who is interested in the Negro’s fight for equality. I am a NAACP member, but it seems to me that the organization is an exclusive club: people can join but there is no forum for expressing individual opinions. I live in New York. Where can white people go to help, what can individuals do in this fight for freedom?

KING: It is certainly commendable that you have such a passion for freedom and human dignity, that you are in quest for an organization through which you can best express your interest. You mentioned the NAACP as an organization which lacks the resources to serve as the proper channel through which your interest can flow. I would suggest that you reconsider your attitude toward the NAACP; it seems to me that the NAACP always leaves the way open for individuals to express opinions through the various branches. This organization has done more to achieve the legal and constitutional rights of Negro citizens than any other organization to which I can point. I feel that continued support of this organization is one of the ways that people of goodwill can further extend the rights of Negro Americans. Since you are in New York, you may very easily familiarize yourself with the resources, methods, and techniques of the NAACP by consulting the national office. Of course there are numerous other organizations working for the rights of Negroes, and many of them are doing exceptionally good jobs. There are organizations in the South, for instance, that are working on the local level to implement the decisions that the NAACP has won through the courts. These organizations are in dire need of financial and moral support. You may consider giving assistance to some of these organizations.


EBONY READER: My problem is my mother and my half brothers and sisters. My mother gives them all her attention. She takes them out, buys them pretty clothes. She never notices me. Her other children are light-skinned. I am dark. What can I do to make her love me, too?

KING: You can probably best deal with your problem by beginning with an analysis of self. I know this sounds rather strange to you, since you have already concluded that your mother and half-brothers and sisters are responsible for the problem. But you must honestly ask yourself the question, whether the problem has arisen because of an inferiority complex that you have developed as a result of your complexion. You must be sure that you do not unconsciously develop a bitterness because of your color, and thereby drive persons away from you. Maintain a wholesome attitude at all times and a radiant personality. These qualities, I am convinced, will awaken within those around you a responding attitude of kindness.


EBONY READER: I am a single woman, in my forties. I have a small business, but I am not pretty. My friends tell me they wish I could find a husband. So do I, but where is the man who is looking for anything else besides beauty? Don’t good morals and knowing how to make a home and an honest dollar count?

KING: Your desire to find a husband is certainly a normal and reasonable one, and I hope our generation hasn’t come to the point that men only look for external beauty in a wife. A marriage that is only based on external beauty lacks the solid rock of permanence and stability. One must discover the meaning of soul beauty before he has really discovered the meaning of love. I quite agree with you that good morals, and knowing how to make a home and an honest dollar are the things that ultimately count in making a meaningful relationship. Whether or not you will find the man who has the wisdom to appreciate these values over against the passing value of physical beauty, I am not prepared to say. But at least you can live by the assurance that you have cultivated in your life those great imperishable values that are ends within themselves.