Martin Luther King Jr. Addresses Economic Justice


Today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorates the 50th anniversary of his legacy.

There are sure to be lengthy discussions on his nonviolent approach during segregation and numerous broadcasting segments of his infamous I Have A Dream speech. Of course, these are all very powerful and valuable discussions, especially during these recent times of increased public attention to activism concerning issues that continue to perpetuate the disenfranchisement and systemic injustices faced by communities of color. However, in discussion of King’s messages of equality, what often gets overlooked was his support of economic justice for all people - especially black and brown folk.

At the 11th Annual SCLC Convention in 1967, Dr. King delivered a speech, entitled Where Do We Go From Here?, addressing his concerns about the economic injustice black people face which he argues is the same level of importance as racial injustice.

At the time he gave this speech, there were about 25 million people facing poverty according to the U.S. Census Bureau which was approximately 12% of the population. In 2016, the U.S. poverty rate was 12.7% of the population, which is 40.6 million people. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message about fighting for economic injustice still rings true today as much as they did during his time and the sad fact is the he was speaking about this 50 years ago.

What would Dr. King say today about how economic conditions for people in communities of color and low income communities are slightly higher now than they were 50 years ago?

What would he say now about the fact that 80% of banks in the U.S. leave these communities because they aren’t making as much money from providing services to these communities ass they would in middle-class and wealthier communities? To say he wouldn’t be happy is a huge understatement. Why is it that there are more check cashing stores in many low-income communities than there are fast food restaurants today, let alone healthy food options? Since many people from these communities live paycheck to paycheck, people in these communities cannot afford all the fees associated with bigger banking institutions. For example, some banks require someone to maintain a significant minimum balance in their account in order to keep it open, otherwise they are charged a fine. For someone living paycheck to paycheck, it is not feasible to have unused money, sitting in a bank account when they are struggling to keep the lights on in their home and put food on the table. If people of low socioeconomic status and communities of color had sufficient access to better economic opportunities, such as mobile banking, there wouldn’t be a need for the multitude of check cashing stores that are present in these communities.

Dr. King argues that poverty for black people stems from slavery as well as the lack of resources available for black people after slavery ended, despite the promise of reparations.

As a result of slavery later generations of black people have continued to suffer and lack the resources to build their wealth. Yet, they are criticized and reprimanded for being in low-income communities. In describing this relationship between slavery and criticism of black people for their economic status, Dr. King states: 

It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, "Now you are free," but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

In celebrating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s legacy, those of us coming from communities of color and/or low income backgrounds need to continue to fight for economic justice for ourselves, for our families, and for our future generations and leave behind our own legacy of inclusion and equality.

Despite the negative financial history associated with communities of color and low-income communities, FinTech companies are looking for innovative ways to give agency back to people from these communities. Services like mobile banking, are just one of the many options in development to tackle this issue.


Ashley Simons