I was a teenager playing basketball when Martin Luther King, Jr. visited my school, Montclair High School, Sept. 11, 1966. I saw the commotion but was more interested in the game. Dr. King had very little relevance to me or my world, or so I thought. His death, less than two short years later, would help define my life.
On April 4, 1968, I was 16 years old and I stopped by my grandmother’s house to steal a piece of sweet potato pie. My grandmother made such great sweet potato pie that you would eat it for dinner and eat chicken for dessert. My goal was to get into the house, steal the pie and get out without being noticed because I knew she had made the pie to raise money for her church.
When I got to her house, I saw her sitting at her dining room table with tears in her eyes. And the dining room table was right between the front door and the kitchen, which meant that there was no way I could get passed that table to steal that pie and go unnoticed. I had to encounter my grandmother, and I didn’t know what to do.
But the closer I got to my grandmother, the more I realized that she was not just sitting at the dining room table with tears in her eyes. She was actually there, all alone, weeping in response to something very specific. I had never seen her cry before and so I was startled. I asked her, “Why would you sit here in the silence of your dining room with tears in your eyes?” And she said to me, “They shot Dr. King today.”
I could not imagine why this Baptist minister, who lived a thousand miles from New Jersey, would affect my grandmother such that his death would cause her to cry. But there was one thing I knew. I loved my grandmother. I respected my grandmother. Though I was not familiar enough, at that time, with Dr. King to say I wanted to be like him, I loved my grandmother enough to know that I wanted to find out whatever it was about this man that caused his death to make my grandmother cry. My goal in life became that I wanted my life to be as meaningful to just one person as Martin Luther King’s life was to my grandmother.
More than 50 years later, Dr. King is celebrated primarily for helping end racial segregation. While his “I Have a Dream,” speech has been memorized and repeated thousands of times over, many people don’t realize that Dr. King wrote and delivered hundreds of speeches – most of them advocating for economic justice.
King felt strongly that, while the Constitution guaranteed legal rights, there are moral rights that are just as important including the right to have a job and live in dignity. In 1966, he wrote:
“The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income. And yet, in a nation which has a gross national product of 750 billion dollars a year, it is morally right to insist that every person has a decent house, an adequate education and enough money to provide basic necessities for one’s family.”
On the eve of his death, in his last speech, Dr. King spoke of the moral drive to help the poor. He also spoke of pooling resources to have the collective power to request fair treatment, withdraw economic support if it was not given, and peacefully negotiate a settlement so that the resources of this great country would be more evenly and fairly distributed. He said:
“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
Just imagine how Dr. King would feel today if he witnessed masses of people gaining their sense of self-worth from buying and accumulating stuff, exchanging their true identities for unrealistic celebrity lifestyles. If Dr. King were alive today, he would be fighting conspicuous consumption, as he continued to preach about agape love and righteous values.
Dr. King would be appalled at the behavior of the majority of Americans, yet he would be determined to find the right balance between social consciousness and personal responsibility, so that we all could enjoy the freedoms for which he so sacrificed.
Dr. King established standards for leadership. He was articulate; he was courageous; he was self-sacrificing. Every generation, whatever your issue or political perspective, needs people who are willing to stand up, speak truth to power, motivate people and sacrifice their own personal gain for some cause larger than themselves.
This is why I work tirelessly to help people become debt free. This is why I need you to step up and participate in this movement to financial freedom.