An amazing Anna Holmes column takes a look at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relatively short-lived stint as an advice columnist for Ebony in the late 1950s.
The results are a powerful reminder that the past was a very different place:
King’s response to a cheated-on wife was to suggest that she “study” her rival to learn what her husband wanted in a woman. (“Are you careful with your grooming? Do you nag?” he asked.) He informed an unmarried woman grappling with whether to have sex that “real men still respect purity and virginity” and instructed an abused wife to determine whether there was anything within her personality to justify such treatment. “Are you sure that you have a radiating personality, a pleasant disposition, and that feminine charm which every man admires?” he asked a Miss Lonelyhearts. To a newlywed having troubles with her mother-in-law, he remarked, “There is an expression that no home is big enough to have two women at its head.”
People naturally focus on formal policy change as the essence of “politics,” but clearly one of the biggest social and political changes of the past 50 years is that nobody would say that stuff in a prominent magazine column these days. And yet we certainly haven’t made it illegal to tell abused wives that their problem is bad personality. Nor should we. People were persuaded to change their thinking.