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The Forgotten Part of MLK’s Dream

January 11th, 2013

Dear FBC Members and Friends,

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., please consider Pastor Soaries’ thoughts on “The Forgotten Part of Martin Luther King’s Dream”. This article was written in 2011 for another organization.

July 2011

The two themes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that have become the most recognized in our culture have been his words, “I have a dream” and “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” When anyone hears these famous words — spoken at the 1963 March on Washington and on the eve of his assassination, respectively — the hearing invokes an appreciation for the audacious hope and stubborn optimism that King possessed. Martin Luther King’s legacy, epitomized by the national holiday that bears his name, summons all Americans to confront those issues that threaten our democracy with the passion and resolve that King confronted the issues of inequality and injustice.

What has struck me about Dr. King’s philosophy and theology was how much emphasis King placed on the development of economic capacity and healthy financial habits among African-Americans. King certainly maintained a keen focus on the economic deprivation that had been inherent in slavery and its Jim Crow successor. He embraced the notion that full American freedom should come with economic benefits and he decried the economic injustices that systematically and disproportionately plagued the descendants of black slaves. But he also included in his oratorical portfolio principles that required financial discipline among African-Americans. In fact the civil rights movement required the kind of financial discipline that made the dollar useful as an offensive weapon in the cause of justice. But that weaponry would only be available if blacks had a firm grip on the management and use of their money. This part of King’s legacy and his leadership has gone virtually unnoticed.

As early as July 1953 King preached a sermon condemning the idolizing of money and the mentality that placed the possession of material things over the pursuit of a life of purpose. Two months before his brutal assassination, in a sermon entitled, “The Drum Major Instinct,” King described in great detail the need to live within one’s means if one were to sustain economic viability. He warned against using cars and other possessions as means to define one’s self. He preached against a desire to attain social status that would weaken one’s financial status. He was very graphic in advising African-Americans to avoid the economic pitfall of trying to “outdo the Joneses” as he put it. These were not the most famous portions of Dr. King’s speeches, but they are as useful today as his dream for equality and his vision of the “promised land.”

Recently the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) reported that African-Americans constituted the largest group of Americans that was not utilizing mainstream financial products. The December 2009 FDIC report, “FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households,” revealed that almost 54% of African-Americans were unbanked (21.7%) and underbanked (31.6%). To be unbanked is to have no bank account at all. The report says, “Underbanked households are defined as those that have a checking or savings account but rely on alternative financial services. Specifically, underbanked households have used non-bank money orders, non-bank check-cashing services, payday loans, rent-to-own agreements, or pawn shops at least once or twice a year, or refund anticipation loans at least once in the past five years.” This means that more than half of the African-American population pays exorbitant fees for everyday financial transactions and they are the prey of the most pernicious practices in the financial services industry today. The economic integrity of African-Americans is threatened by these facts.

Unfortunately, too many civil rights organizations, black elected officials and black celebrities are complicit with companies that perpetrate these devastating financial schemes among blacks. For instance the payday loan industry, that charges fees that translate into APR of 300 – 500% interest rates, has used Montel Williams as a paid spokesperson, while the rent-to-own industry has Irwin “Magic” Johnson as their promoter. And some of these predatory companies seem to have bought the cooperation of black groups and black politicians that depend upon corporate donations.

Perhaps some organization or network will emerge that will revive the kind of bold leadership that Dr. King provided. We certainly need to advocate policies that enhance the well being of African-Americans, but we also must challenge people to make the best use of existing resources and exercise prudence in our financial affairs.

Black America will soon generate a trillion dollars a year in spending power. We need a national movement that creates concrete strategies that lead blacks away from skillfully deceptive financial schemes and creates a path for greater economic self-sufficiency. There may be no more meaningful way to continue the legacy and celebrate the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. DeForest B. Soaries, Jr. is Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, NJ, and author of dfree: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery. Dr. Soaries and his dfree® strategy were the focus of an installment of CNN’s Black in America documentary, “Almighty Debt.” He was New Jersey’s 30th Secretary of State, and is a popular speaker around the world.

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