Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Financial Advice to America

A Round-up of Recent Perspectives on MLK’s Ideas about Money

Personal finance is not the first topic that comes to mind when you ponder the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. But the great thinker, orator, man of God, and activist had quite a lot to say about the subject — and how it relates to the larger forces at work in American and global society.

Here’s a round-up of some of the best recent perspectives on King’s financial philosophy, from a range of thinkers who agree on one point: King lived his life in the service of others, as “a drum major for justice.”

What MLK Taught Us About Money

If you read nothing else from this post, read Thomas Chiles’s “4 Times Martin Luther King, Jr. Taught us About Money” from Debt.com in January 2018. Chiles does a brilliant, succinct job of showing how deftly King intertwined his concern for economic justice with his action for greater justice on the world stage.

“King spoke about fighting for economic freedom throughout his life,” writes Chiles.

Here are the four examples Chiles lifts up:

A 1953 sermon, The False God of Money, about the dangers of worshipping personal gain.

King’s denouncement of the Vietnam War: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.’

King’s campaign for jobs and guaranteed income in 1967 — causes that remain popular today.

King’s dedication to the Poor People’s Campaign, which would have become the major focus of his activism if he had not been cruelly murdered in 1968.

More of Chiles’s article here. You can follow him on Twitter.

Financial Lessons from Dr. King

In 2014, writing for Ebony, financial advisor Lynnette Khalfani-Cox summarized five key lessons on personal finance that Dr. King offered during his lifetime. Taken together, these are powerful principles to live by:

  1. Don’t wait for economic change — create it
  2. Financial freedom is worth fighting for
  3. Sometimes you need to step out on faith and take a risk
  4. Your education, job or career status doesn’t define you
  5. Take your work seriously

On this last point, Khalfani-Cox notes that King spoke with passion of the dignity of work: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

You can follow Khalfani-Cox at @themoneycoach on Twitter or seek out her site, AskTheMoneyCoach.com.

Harnessing the “Drum-Major Instinct”

King gave a speech in February 1968, mere months before his assassination, in which he returned to themes of finance and personal responsibility that he first raised in his 1953 speech, building on a 1952 speech of a fellow minister. Here’s a portion of that speech in his own words, via the blog Radical Personal Finance.

King warned his listeners against the dangers of wanting to come up first (the drum-major instinct). He felt this desire was at the root of conspicuous consumption, susceptibility to advertising, and unhealthy competition. King gets surprisingly specific about how much a car or house should cost a family, in proportion to their earnings.

“The drum-major instinct often causes us to live above our means.”

This need to be powerful, King believed, also underlay prejudice and racist power structures:

“Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior … and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.”

A cornerstone of King’s developing activism against poverty in the late 1960s was that poor white people should make common cause with poor black people, a consciously anti-racist and anti-poverty stance in the fight for true economic opportunity for all.

He also condemned the drum-major instinct as it made itself known in geopolitics, notably Vietnam, where he explicitly called out the United States’s war crimes:

“I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.”

To his last breath, King believed it was possible to harness the “drum-major instinct” for good. He ended this speech by dedicating himself to setting such an example:

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.’

Riding for the Freedom Budget

Budgets Are Sexy offers a thoughtful essay on MLK’s financial legacy as a philanthropist and people’s economist. King gave away much of his personal income to others. He was also engaged in supporting a proposal known as The Freedom Budget, which was developed in 1966 by the A. Philip Randolph Institute. It lays out seven recommendations:

  1. To provide full employment for all who are willing and able to work, including those who need education or training to make them willing and able.
  2. To assure decent and adequate wages to all who work.
  3. To assure a decent living standard to those who cannot or should not work.
  4. To wipe out slum ghettos and provide decent homes for all Americans.
  5. To provide decent medical care and adequate educational opportunities to all Americans, at a cost they can afford.
  6. To purify our air and water and develop our transportation and natural resources on a scale suitable to our growing needs.
  7. To unite sustained full employment with sustained full production and high economic growth.

BAR’s pseudonymous J. Money challenges us:

What Dr. King was able to do really makes you wonder about your own legacy, doesn’t it? What we will all leave behind in terms of making a positive impact on society? Do we want to be known for being awesome at our money or being awesome at something much farther reaching?”

I’ve been so focused on digging out of debt and providing for those closest to me that I really have to think about this. I think right now the ways I am giving to my community and country are not financial and not even particularly brave or well-organized. I’m confined to a small scale of action at the moment, but this day dedicated to Dr. King’s memory gives us all an opportunity to ask ourselves:

How will I use any money I have for the benefit of other people, and to make the world a more just and beautiful place?

How will you?

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I’m a 50-something bohemian with a mountain of debt and regrets. Can I dig out before it’s all over? I brake for poets.

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