Is King All That We Are Allowed to Become?

Americans both black and white often use the civil-rights leader’s memory more to chide black youth than to inspire them.

A photo illustration of Martin Luther King
Fred W. McDarrah / Getty / Thanh Do / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: We’ve gathered dozens of the most important pieces from our archives on race and racism in America. Find the collection here.

From September 1957 until the end of 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. was both the president of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an advice columnist. For those 16 months, King answered questions from readers of Ebony magazine, the premier lifestyle magazine for African Americans, under the title “Advice for Living.” Predictably, many of the questions have to do with civil rights and race, as King had become a national figure after his involvement in the successful Montgomery bus boycott. Others are religious or spiritual in nature. He’s asked a couple times for his thoughts on nuclear weapons. But there is also more-standard advice-column fare having to do with self-improvement and the management of personal relationships.

Many of his answers to these questions are what you might expect from a deeply learned and committed Christian (while his answer about birth control may surprise you), though quite a few feel rather thoughtless and reveal a latent sexism. To a woman who writes “My husband is one of the pillars of the church. … He is a complete tyrant at home. He seems to hate me and the children, too. What can I do?,” King first says, “I would suggest that you analyze the whole situation and see if there is anything within your personality that arouses this tyrannical response from your husband.” Another woman writes, “My husband is having an affair with a woman in our housing project. He promised to stop, but he is still seeing her. We have children and I don’t believe in divorce, but I cannot and will not share him. What must I do?,” and part of King’s advice reads, “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. 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.” To a woman who was hurt about being the butt of her husband’s jokes, King says, “Sometimes individuals embarrass other individuals in public in an attempt to pay them back for being humiliated in private. Ask yourself whether you are doing anything, even unconsciously, to arouse a resentful attitude on the part of your husband.”

The structure of the column was such that he answered several questions at a time, so the advice was meant to be brief. Even so, these answers don’t feel as measured and considered as so much of King’s written work dealing with issues of racism and American life. To be fair, he responded to both men’s and women’s inquiries about marital problems by first advising a “self-analysis,” but his answers to men did not rely upon old sexist tropes about nagging wives. And he was still fairly young at the time of this writing: only 28 years old when he started the column, and only about four years into his own marriage. Perhaps some of his views matured later. But these details only make the question of why he was even approached for this sort of gig even more curious.

One clue as to an explanation comes from Jet magazine, the sister publication to Ebony, where an advertisement for King’s advice column included the line: “Let the man that led the Montgomery boycott lead you into happier living.”

There’s no reason to presume King would have any useful insight on “happier living,” except to connect his moral and ethical stand against injustice to a deeper emotional intelligence. The two don’t always go together. Nevertheless, the image of King as a moral leader was already being used as a way to influence more than just the political destiny of the country, but as a guidepost for how to live and conduct yourself in every aspect of life.

In the 50 years since his assassination, the memory of King, as fuzzy a thing as memories are, has been used as a cudgel of moral authority. Americans have crafted a version of King that is a perfect black manhood. People of varying political stripes have appropriated the legacy of King and used his perceived moral superiority as a way of upholding an idea of societal change that rests on personal conduct and respectability, rather than grassroots organizing and power building.

Memes circulate explaining why black men are supposedly no longer taken seriously, juxtaposing photos of King in his trademark black suit, crisp white shirt, and stern intellectual glare against those meant to represent modern-day black men, with gold teeth, sagging pants, sometimes brandishing weapons, but often not even needing to go that far. The message is clear enough: There was once a black man who was respectable, so much so that he managed to alter the course of American racism by the sheer force of his respectable demeanor. Those days are gone and as such black people will continue to suffer.

This, of course, is not the way it actually worked. King was not universally praised for his suit choices during his life, nor for his broader message of justice and dismantling systems of oppression. But the fantasy of such a figure is an effective way of dismissing black youth culture as some perversion of a true black culture, one built by men like King, and therefore that culture need not be treated with any measure of care, understanding, or respect. If King’s philosophy, tactics, demeanor, and style are the standard, the people who fashion themselves as serious political thinkers have no reason to engage anyone who is not mimicking King. As such, they can limit the parameters of the debate to their sanitized, cuddly version of King’s politics. And without an infusion of differing viewpoints, the status quo is protected, and American institutions can continue their oppression unabated.

Young activists find themselves on the blunt end of the fantastical King more than anyone. They may be drawing from his analysis of American racism, and more and more his critiques of American capitalism, but their refusal to repeat his (wildly misinterpreted) messages of love and nonviolence draw swift rebukes, from longtime anti-racist activists and conservative operatives alike, to their organizing methods and demands. They are told that their mission will fail if they do not take up the example of King. Were they to do so, pundits and lawmakers alike would be willing to listen to them, just as pundits and lawmakers listened to King. That’s why the fight for desegregation was so easy.

This isn’t just a matter of white people abusing the legacy of a great black man as a way of belittling “regular” black folks. Black people, too, have played a part in constructing the invincible black manhood of our superhuman King. A 2006 episode of the late-night cartoon The Boondocks, created by Aaron McGruder, imagines a world in which the bullet that killed King only put him into a coma, and he emerges nearly 40 years later to find his image being used to sell hamburgers and his ideas about loving thy enemy unwelcome in a post–9/11 world. Despite all this, the cartoon King unleashes his deepest anger toward the “bunch of trifling, shiftless, good-for-nothing niggas” he sees before him. At what is meant to be celebration of the King holiday, we are shown black people dancing, drinking, fighting, and generally being uncouth in a way that King, cartoon or real, would disapprove of. When he approaches a microphone to speak to the unruly audience, he starts by exclaiming, “Will you ignorant niggas please shut the hell up?,” before launching into his complaints about the failure of black people (he says “niggas”) to honor his legacy properly, taking notable and strange aim at BET, Usher, and the movie Soul Plane (all things McGruder himself had criticized in the cartoon-strip version of The Boondocks). King, here, is essentially imagined as a not-so-distant cousin to the version of Bill Cosby that delivered the infamous “pound cake speech.”

In his book Locking Up Our Own, the legal scholar James Forman Jr. recounts a number of instances in which King’s name is evoked during the 1990s, often alongside rhetoric that would provide justifications for the harsh laws that have since contributed to a boom period in mass incarceration. During a 1995 MLK Day speech, then-U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Eric Holder said, “Dr. King would be shocked and disheartened by the condition of his people in 1995—and I, for one, would be ashamed to reveal to him what we have let happen to our community. … Did Martin Luther King successfully fight the likes of Bull Connor so that we could ultimately lose the struggle for civil rights to misguided or malicious members of our own race?” That same year, Jesse Jackson visited Birmingham Jail and said, seemingly without a sense of irony, to a young woman behind bars who was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of King on it, “If he’s your hero, you wouldn’t be in here.”

Superficially, such criticisms can come across as well-meaning concerns for the character of black young people. And, from what I hear, there aren’t many other role models for young black people to look up to. Why not turn to King, again and again and again, given his exemplary status as an American icon? Who better to guide our children on the path to “happier living” than the only black man with a statue on the National Mall? He was not just a great orator, but a family man, a devoutly religious man, a charitable man. He was everything you should want your little boys to grow up to be and your daughters to grow up to marry.

That is, in a nutshell, the problem. Wielding this heavy-handed vision of King can be as repressive as it is meant to be inspiring. It can stifle a vision of what is moral and ethical in a world that is moving beyond the social norms that were in place during King’s life. The imposition of his imagined moral authority (his political agenda be damned) on each passing generation can leave everyone stuck pining for a model of masculinity whose time has passed, and was never truly useful. Even now as scholars, writers, and artists try to draw a more complex King and speak of his flaws, there exists a danger of reifying an archaic sense of manhood. The oft-repeated tales of his marital infidelity can come across as a way of bolstering a certain masculine idea of him that his admirers are meant to envy. It’s a way of admitting that King was flawed, but only to the extent that he is still viewed as a heterosexual, virile, prodigiously sexual man—none of these being characteristics which are actually considered flaws. King, once again, is superman.

Where can we go if King is not only what we should aspire to be, but King is all that we are allowed to become? I’ve combed through all of his “Advice for Living” columns. That question never came up. I’m not so sure he’d have a good answer.

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