Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Financial Advice to America
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”. 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.
“When men bow down and worship at the shrine of money they are being deprived of their most precious endowment — the possibility of living life in its fullness and its endless beauty.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1953 sermon, ‘The False God of Money”
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.
“A man’s God is not his theory about God, picked up on the surface of his mind because he happens to live in the twentieth century, but a man’s real God is that to which he gives his ultimate devotion, that unifying loyalty which draws his life together and gives it centrality and singleness of aim.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1953 sermon, ‘The False God of Money”
Reading over Dr. King’s 1953 sermon, it is abundantly clear that he saw a way to fight both for economic freedom and self-determination and the un-centering of money in ours lives. A realist, King knew that money was an important means to living a good life: theorizing the question, “‘Are you saying that we must not pursue economic goals?’” he replied, “To which I would answer, of course not. No one can really minimize the importance of money …. Money in its proper place is a worthwhile and necessary instrument for a well-rounded life, but when it is projected to the status of a god it becomes a power that corrupts and an instrument of exploitation.’”
More of Chiles’s article here.
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:
- Don’t wait for economic change — create it
- Financial freedom is worth fighting for
- Sometimes you need to step out on faith and take a risk
- Your education, job or career status doesn’t define you
- 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:
- 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.
- To assure decent and adequate wages to all who work.
- To assure a decent living standard to those who cannot or should not work.
- To wipe out slum ghettos and provide decent homes for all Americans.
- To provide decent medical care and adequate educational opportunities to all Americans, at a cost they can afford.
- To purify our air and water and develop our transportation and natural resources on a scale suitable to our growing needs.
- To unite sustained full employment with sustained full production and high economic growth.
The Freedom Budget resonates with me in this time of so many people-centric, justice-oriented plans and platforms. As Martin Luther King Jr. was accused of communism in his own day, so now groups such as Black Lives Matter and supporters of the Green New Deal are accused of communism. To be sure, Marxists and communists have been unapologetically and visibly on the forefront of fighting for workers and public safety nets, as have many people of conscience. One has to wonder why we cannot simply evaluate plans on their merits — and by merits, I do not mean simplistic notions of productivity or pay-as-you-go philosophies that, when applied as they’ve been attempted, would have destroyed public broadcasting, public schools, what’s left of public health care, and vital services long ago and are prevailing in decades-long gutting of passenger rail and the US Postal Service, to name a few.
Simply speaking, money matters are too important to leave to capitalists, the wolves minding the henhouse. While Dr. King was, emphatically, not a communist, one wonders why so many of us find capitalists more trustworthy than their more socialistic kin.
Anyway, back to the man of the day. BAS’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?”
As for me, I’m a chaotic democratic socialist with an unfortunate addiction to lipstick (especially unfortunate in a pandemic). The ways I am giving to my community and country are not particularly brave or well-organized. I keep trying to step it up, though, as I think about what Dr. King and his followers did, for themselves and for a nation that frankly didn’t deserve them and didn’t really repay them, and maybe never will.
This day dedicated to Dr. King’s memory gives me an opportunity to ask myself: How will I spend my time and my money for the benefit of other people, and to make the world a more just and beautiful place?
How will you?
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