In 1957, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a monthly column for EBONY called Advice For Living. Readers sent in their most burning questions in hopes that MLK would reply with transformative advice. Although Black Americans during the time of Dr. King had a primary focus of achieving liberation and equity in the face of Jim Crow, there were various intersectional issues that still impacted pockets of our community. In the column, the reverend tackled a broad range of topics such as marriage, sex, politics and race.

Unfortunately, the Advice For Living ended in 1958 after Dr. King was stabbed in New York City. His column addressed some of the most important issues of that era through the vantage point of societal standards of the time. Over six decades since these columns were written, we analyze the pertinence of a couple of his responses and how they withstand the times today.

May 1958

Question: I am a housewife and the mother of two children. I have found out that many Negroes have inferiority complexes, especially about their looks. It starts when they are children, the stories they are told—Goldilocks, Black Sambo—and the pictures they see play down the Negro. Are there any children's stories, fables or religious stories that contain Negro characters?

Answer: It is certainly true that many Negro children grow up with inferiority complexes. This is basically true because they grow up in a system which forever stares them in the faces saying, ‘You are less than,” "You are not equal to.” Segregation generates a feeling of inferiority in the segregated. This sense of inferiority comes into being as a result of segregation. This sense of inferiority is further generated, as you suggest, by the inferior roles played by Negroes in pictures that they see and the stories that they read. It must be admitted that American society has done far too little in presenting the Negro in a realistic role. The stereotype role in which he has been traditionally presented is distasteful to any well thinking Negro. Fortunately, many things are happening to change this trend. More and more through television, movies and other public channels, Negroes are being presented in a realistic manner and their creative abilities are increasingly coming to the forefront. This remains a real challenge for Negro artists and entertainers as well as writers.

Today's Analysis: Dr. King addresses an age-old question about the importance of positive representation of Black folks across different mediums. Films like Birth of a Nation and the prevalence of minstrel shows in the early 20th century set a precedent of derogatory imagery being used to depict and stereotype Black people. We are fortunate today to see a broad acceptance and appreciation of Blackness and its many hues on television, in books and even in varying fields of industry. However, we still frequently battle with institutions and other entities who are infatuated with placing our community into a monolithic box.

American society has thrived upon the belittling of our community and has taught us to see no value in who we are and our inherent power. The works of Dr. King and other civil rights activists during his time have laid the foundation for us to recognize our own humanity and designate ourselves as the victors and proprietors of our own stories. Without their work and their belief in our innate beauty, we would not be as far along as we are today. Therefore, it is still extremely important to surround Black children with positive and relatable examples that prioritize Blackness so that they may be affirmed in their existence and of their potential.

December 1957

Question: We have seven children and another one is on the way. Our four-room apartment is bursting at the seams and living space in Harlem is at a premium. I have suggested to my husband that we practice birth control, but he says that when God thinks we have enough children, He will put a stop to it. I’ve tried to reason with him, but he says that birth control is sinful. Is he right?

Answer: I do not think it is correct to argue that birth control is sinful. It is a serious mistake to suppose that it is a religious act to allow nature to have its way in the sex life. The truth is that the natural order is given us, not as an absolute finality, but as something to be guided and controlled. In the case of birth control the real question at issue is that between rational control and resort to chance. Another thing that must be said is that changes in social and economic conditions make smaller families desirable, if not necessary. As you suggest, the limited quarters available in our large cities and the high cost of living preclude such large families as were common a century or so ago. A final consideration is that women must be considered as more than “breeding machines.” It is true that the primary obligation of the woman is that of motherhood, but an intelligent mother wants it to be a responsible motherhood—a motherhood to which she has given her consent, not a motherhood due to impulse and to chance. And this means birth control in some form. All of these factors, seem to me, to make birth control rationally and morally justifiable.

Today's Analysis: As we continue to fight for women's reproductive rights, King's response to this question reminds us of the progress ladies have made since this time but still have to go. The society we currently live in has historically prioritized the needs and direction of men which disadvantages the lives and contributions that women have and continue to make. And though we've made tremendous strides for gender equity, there is so much further for us to go.

Roe vs. Wade, Equal Rights Amendment and Title XI are examples of the ways that the futures and lives of women have become more protected in this country. However, motherhood and the ability to conceive does not define the essence of womanhood. While the condition of women being seen worthy of equity has changed, it must be noted that when we understand one another outside of the gender binary, the better we will be.

January 1958

My problem is different from the ones most people have. I am a boy, but I feel about boys the way I ought to feel about girls. I don’t want my parents to know about me. What can I do? Is there any place where I can go for help?

Your problem is not at all an uncommon one. However, it does require careful attention. The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired. Your reasons for adopting this habit have now been consciously suppressed or unconsciously repressed. Therefore, it is necessary to deal with this problem by getting back to some of the experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit. In order to do this 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.

Today's Analysis: While Dr. King has mostly had a more progressive and inclusive approach in his responses, this particular one missed the mark. In 2022, society is much more inclusive to people who may be slightly different from us; however, the Black community at large still struggles to stand in solidarity and in understanding with our siblings in the LGBTQ+ community. Queerness is not a diagnosis to be fixed or cured and mindsets like this have stunted and forced many Black folks into the depths of obscurity and into locked closets for decades.

Bayard Rustin was one of Dr. King's most trusted advisors and one of the most significant figures of the civil rights movement. However, because of his queerness, he was prevented from gaining visibility as a prominent leader in the movement at that time. If his presence was more widely accepted and respected, his stature as a notable voice would have had the potential to shift Black culture for the better. This is true for so many Black voices who were confined in their self-expression.

As history and times continue to evolve and change, we must reflect on the statements made in the past with a critical eye yet understand the context of which these responses were originally made.