Dr. Martin Luther King’s Financial Metaphor Resonates

87px-Martin-Luther-King-1964-leaning-on-a-lectern.jpgYesterday, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, many no doubt re-read his Lincoln Memorial speech, which had a profound impact on the cause of civil rights, perhaps moreso than any other speech or demonstration at the time or since. For those readers, the “I have a dream” speech no doubt resonated deeply given today’s inauguration of the first African-American President. King’s vision of an America where “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” would join hands and sing “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” captured the hopefulness of “Yes, We Can” in an authentic and moving way.

The speech may have struck a chord in another way. The speech began with a financial metaphor–a bad check drawn by a defaulting system of justice that was uncashable by black men and women. In this winter of our economic discontent, as then, we must prioritize our goals as we seek to cash our checks going forward. As Dr. King explained:

we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that American has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, American has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe the the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check–a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.

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