Americans know Martin Luther King, Jr. as a civil rights leader who fought for the cause of racial justice through his speeches, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience. What’s sometimes left out of his legacy is that a key component of King’s vision for the country included greater financial equality for all Americans.
While King served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he gave a speech detailing the organization’s efforts toward securing economic equality1. According to King, under his leadership the SCLC negotiated with businesses to keep accounts at banks owned by African Americans, with the goal of increasing those banks’ assets so they could better serve their communities. The organization also encouraged businesses to invest in local African American communities themselves, in part by hiring black workers and contractors. When some businesses refused, the SCLC organized boycotts, pickets, and leaflet campaigns to protest them until they changed their practices. King states his belief that companies that want the business of African Americans also need to invest in their communities by offering fair employment opportunities, or as he eloquently put it, “If you respect my dollar, you must respect my person.”
Jobs are a topic King speaks on frequently, saying that America has to either create full employment or it has to create incomes for people if it wants to progress. To achieve this, he advocates for creating new forms of work for people who cannot secure traditional employment. In another speech, The Other America, King goes even further, saying the struggle for equality includes making sure every American has a guaranteed annual income, in addition to a solid job, good housing conditions, and a quality education2. He also laments that many Americans “find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” highlighting the income inequality of the nation in a way that wouldn’t be out of place today.
King even talked about personal finance, such as in his speech The Drum Major Instinct3. In it, he theorizes that almost everyone has a desire to be praised and noticed that can motivate people to do great things, but it can also push you to live above your means to feed your ego. Taken to extremes, this instinct can encourage people to push others down in order to make themselves feel bigger, which leads to prejudice.
King tells the audience to harness that instinct for the good it can do while being aware of its negative influences. He goes as far as to suggest some financial rules to live by to avoid spending too much, such as not driving a car worth more than half your annual income. This shows King really cared about the personal financial decisions people make, and that he thought each person’s financial condition is linked in some way to the struggle for equality.
While we remember the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s also important to recognize that the work he was trying to do is not yet finished. Fighting for financial fairness is a difficult cause, but as economic inequality supports so many of the other injustices of the world, it is a worthy one.