With the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday just around the corner, many people are remembering the social justice aspects of Dr. King’s life and work. But it’s also worth recalling that much of King’s activities had an economic component as well.
In memory of one of America’s most pre-eminent heroes, here are five financial lessons we can all learn from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy.
Lesson No. 1: Don’t wait for economic change—create it
How many times have you complained about your workplace, your low pay or something unfair that happened to you economically? Maybe a company denied you a job, some insurer rejected your insurance claim or a bank turned you down for a much-needed loan, and you’re convinced your misfortune was racially motivated.
Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong. Either way, how do you plan to fix your circumstances and move forward positively?
Or perhaps you’re simply longing for better pay and more career success, but you’re stuck in a cubicle waiting to be recognized for your hard work while others are promoted left and right all around you.
Well, Dr. King didn’t just moan about social and economic injustice. He worked hard to change such wrongdoing. He protested. He lobbied. He went to jail. He sacrificed.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in April 1963, King wrote: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
What are you willing to do to create the economic realities you desire?
Lesson No. 2: Financial freedom is worth fighting for
One of my favorite sayings from Martin Luther King, Jr. is this:
“There is nothing in all the world greater than freedom. It is worth paying for; it is worth losing a job for; it is worth going to jail for. I would rather be a free pauper than a rich slave. I would rather die in abject poverty with my convictions than live in inordinate riches with the lack of self respect.”
Those are powerful words. And I like to think that King meant “freedom” in every sense of the word—including financial freedom.
In my opinion, though—and I really hate to say this—too many African-Americans who want financial freedom aren’t willing to seriously fight for it, nor take enough risks to get it.
We’ll fight for all sorts of things--just turn on The Real Housewives of Atlanta to see crazy fights over a bunch of nothing. But how come more of us aren’t out there fighting to teach our kids to be financially literate; fighting to help more Black men graduate from college; or fighting against poverty—even though we live in the richest country on the planet?
Winning these battles will promote generational and national economic security.
Lesson No. 3: Sometimes you need to step out on faith and take a risk
One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most memorable quotes was when he said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”
Having faith and taking risks are necessary components to building wealth and managing one’s finances. So what are some ways to take prudent risks and achieve financial freedom?
You could start by doing something as simple as tuning out all the noise, the commercialism and the “bling” culture that surrounds so many of us. So what if your friends are driving a new car every other year or spending their money on designer clothes?
Forget about buying into a materialistic consumer culture, and focus instead on creating true wealth by investing for the future.
Unfortunately, far too few of us are doing this. It’s as if we truly believe that “Wall Street is a White man’s world,” as several Blacks have told me over the years.
Perhaps that misguided thinking explains why an Ariel/Hewitt study found that only 66 percent of Blacks contribute to their 401(k) retirement plans at work, compared with a 77 percent 401(k) participation rate for Whites.
Also, among Blacks who do invest via company retirement plans, six in 10 have less than $50,000 saved in those plans, and only 23 percent have more than $100,000 in these plans, according to a Prudential study called The African-American Financial Experience. Comparatively, 34 percent of Americans in general have $100,000 in company retirement plans, Prudential found.
Besides investing, another worthwhile risk is to go out and start your own business.
Stop worrying about a “steady paycheck,” and don’t let the fear of failure hold you back. Have faith, do your homework and start fighting for your economic future by taking the economic reins via entrepreneurship.
Soon enough, your success will silence the naysayers. And what if your business fails? Trust me when I say that even if that happens, being your own boss will bring personal freedom that is its own reward.
Lesson No. 4: Your education, job or career status doesn’t define you
In the wake of job loss, the Great Recession and other financial calamities, many people have become depressed, angry or bitter that they aren’t where they wanted to be careerwise or economically. If King were here, he’d have none of that.
King once said, “Everybody can be great ... because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
So don’t let your outlook be clouded by your title or your degree, or the lack of one. King reminded us all that you can go as far as your faith and hard work take you.
Lesson No. 5: Take your work seriously
Even though King taught us that we are not defined by our careers, I love that he nevertheless urged people to take their jobs and their callings in life seriously. He suggested that no matter how lofty or how common your profession, you should do it with honor and pride.
King said, “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.’”
I appreciate King’s beautiful call to always work to the best of your ability, because ultimately the truly successful people in life are those with great work ethics.
What financial lessons have you learned from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox is a personal finance expert and co-founder of the free financial advice site AskTheMoneyCoach.com. Follow her on Twitter @themoneycoach and Google Plus.