Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered as one of the key American civil rights leaders. The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s famous I Have A Dream Speech, delivered less than a year before his tragic assassination, is recognized as a defining moment within the movement for its inspiring call to end racism in the United States. During the course of Dr. King’s involvement in the civil rights movement, he would make a number of speeches and appearances in various cities and at educational institutions. In a little known speech, once thought lost until it was rediscovered in the late 1990’s, Dr. King’s call to nonviolent protest would evolve into a universal and timeless lesson about financial (and civic) responsibility.
In various excerpts from Dr. King's 1958 Speech at Bennett College, also known as the Finance Your Freedom speech, he presents a simple financial concept, “want vs. need,” against the backdrop of political unrest in the United States, particularly in the American south. This speech is more than just an attempt to encourage North Carolina supporters to to get involved or financially support the civil rights movement. Finance your Freedom reveals the marriage between personal finance and civic responsibility.
In light of today’s commemoration, here are three reasons why the great Dr. King’s speech at Bennett College remains a relevant lesson in finance:
1. The Importance of Maintaining A Sense of Value
“We ride around in some of the biggest cars that have ever been let loose into history. I’m not condemning this. I know how it is. We want to have some of the basic goods of life. We want to have some of the luxuries of life. What I’m saying is let maintain a sense of value. We don’t have time to spend a lot of money on whiskey and big parties and a lot of stuff and we aren’t giving money to basic cause that confronts us now...we spend more money on frivolity than on the cause of freedom and justice.”
There will come a time when you will be asked to sacrifice in the name of a movement, cause, legislation, or political candidate. Or, perhaps, one may feel compelled to give to any of the above because its message or purpose means a great deal to them personally.
For Mrs. Beckler, an Atlanta supporter of Dr. King, she felt her $5 contribution of support (which is around $41 in today’s money) would be better valued within the civil rights movement. This is evident in a note, made public by The King Center, she addressed personally to Dr. King. At a time when gas cost 25 cents a gallon, five dollars was no small sum to part with. However, Mrs. Beckler’s sacrifice of that full tank of gas, that new dress, or that fresh hairdo, would help bring an end to racism in the United States.
2. Recognizing that Actions Have Worth
“I remember one year that a certain fraternity that spent in one week $500,000 on whiskey. That’s what the paper reported. In one week, more was spent than the whole year for the NAAAP and the United Negro College. Now, that’s tragic. Now, you don’t like some of these things I’m saying. You’re not saying Amen too much right there. But these things are basic.”
Being able to identify priorities are essential in financial planning. How we spend speaks volumes about us as individuals and as an entire society. In today’s era of “first-world problems,” it may be hard to hear one complain about how they are behind on their bills when they just bought the latest Apple (AAPL) iPhone. Moreover, it may be hard to hear one complain about the lack of leadership skills of their newly elected mayor, governor, congressman or President, when they didn’t set foot in a voting booth or failed to contribute to any campaign. In many ways, our pocketbooks act as an extension of our voices. All to often, our voices and actions to aid the greater good are squandered and wasted on frivolous wants.
3. Financing Your Freedom
“We have a civil rights bill now, which I hope will help us a great deal. So let us go and gain the balance and to use it wisely. Let us continue to give big money to the cause of freedom.”
With careful and conscious planning comes a sense of financial freedom. That financial freedom lifts the burden of being ill-prepared during an unplanned event or crisis. Young adults are often told to save for a number of reasons: a new car, first home, medical emergencies, and so on. However, it is a rare occurrence that a financial planning guru or home economics instructor will suggest putting aside funds for a political campaign or social cause.
Just as much as the food that one eats or the roof over one’s head, civic responsibility is also a crucial and basic part of one’s life. It is a basic need to be heard within one’s community. Financial planning, with the greater good in mind, not only makes a more involved community, but a more politically conscious society as a whole.
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