Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that financial freedom was a freedom worth fighting for - and we want you to know it too. Here are six essential money lessons from the civil rights leader.

Everyone knows about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. Few people know that his dream extended not only to racial equality but also to smart money management. 

His writings on economics and work make essential reading for millennials today.

As we celebrate his birthday, we take a look at some of the astute comments he made about making money, managing your finances, and prospering financially and personally as you journey through life.

Don’t be greedy

“The temptation to worship this money god is one that faces us all. To resist it we need to take high ground.”

In a July 1953 sermon, King spoke of three consequences of prioritizing the dollar over all else:

  • You put making a living ahead of making a life. King fully believed in the importance of being of service to your country. In this sermon, he stated his fear that people would spend so much time chasing the almighty dollar that they’d forget the very things that make life worth living.
  • It creates a culture of selfishness. When wealth is a person’s top priority, the means no longer matter. It could lead to someone resorting to robbery or cheating, which devalues a person’s character. Soon, others become depersonalized and we all become solely focused on bringing in more money.
  • People become socially pernicious. By this, King meant that those pursuing wealth soon will begin to lose their own ideals. “Who can doubt that the mad desire of gaining money and the fear of losing it are our chief breeders of moral cowardice and corruption?” King asked. Crucial qualities like honor and principle will soon be tossed aside, King warned, leading to the degradation of society.

Life is not a competition

“And there is, deep down within all of us, an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.”

In his February 1968 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King referred to an issue that still runs rampant today. There seems to be an ongoing competition among people to have the best car, the biggest house, the most high-dollar toys. It’s all about appearances, not about how much money you actually have in the bank.

This desire to be first is not unnatural. In fact, King quoted prominent experts who said it was part of human nature. Alfred Adler said the quest for recognition was the basic driver of life. But King also pointed out the consequences of giving in to that impulse. It drives us to live beyond our means, King says, which can end in disaster. He emphasized the importance of harnessing this drive and seeing that it’s not about being first.

It’s about being great.

There’s dignity in all work

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”

In this drive to be recognized, humans tend to create a career hierarchy, elevating some jobs above others. This runs in direct opposition to King’s hard work throughout his life to boost employment and ensure decent wages to everyone, no matter their skills or education. In fact, King was an open supporter of The Freedom Budget, which proposed a way to end poverty in the U.S. without costing taxpayers. It suggested a basic income and universal healthcare, among other changes.

But King’s philosophy on all jobs being equal can best be summed up by this quote. “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets 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.’”

King believed no work should be viewed as less important than any other work, even if the pay wasn’t equal. His quote is a reminder that no matter what you do for a living, you should take pride in putting in a day of hard work, striving to be a better person while also being the best at the work you do.

Live a life of generosity

“The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.”

Among the many powerful statements King said in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon was the above message. Throughout the speech, he emphasized the importance of black communities working together to raise each other up. But King himself practiced what he preached. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he famously donated the prize money to the civil rights movement. The value of the prize at the time has been estimated at $54,600.

Just start walking

6 Money Lessons We Can Learn From Martin Luther King, Jr - Rosa Parks

“He introduced me to the idea of taking one step, even if you can’t see the whole stairway when you start.”

This quote, which came from Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, was an observation made after being in attendance at several of King’s events. It’s been twisted in recent years to a false quote from King that states, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Even if King never said those exact words, though, the quote definitely is in the spirit of his teachings.

For King, faith was tightly connected to his religious beliefs. However, the leader was a firm believer in following your dreams. From a young age, it was clear that King was gifted, being admitted to Morehouse College at the age of 15. During his time there, he had racial equality advocate, Dr. Benjamin Mays, as a mentor, so that by the time he was chosen as the Montgomery Bus Boycott spokesperson, he had the foundation he needed to be an advocate. Throughout his career, though, King always stood out as a high achiever in primarily white environments.

Don’t give up

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

You will face challenges in life, whether you’re speaking out against injustices or interviewing for your dream job. In fact, perseverance is often cited as one of the top factors in success. As you look at some of the wealthiest, most prominent people in society today, you’ll probably see at least a few failures in their background. Even in investing, you have to be willing to accept a few risks in order to see major rewards.

But perhaps King’s message is most useful when thinking about how you’ll make an impact on the world. How you treat others on your way to the top is just as important as how much money you have in your bank account. King used his platform to make a lasting impact on the civil rights movement in this country. Sometimes true success comes from sitting with those challenges for a while and continuing forward when it seems easier to give up.

King remains a living example of someone who achieved success, then used that success to change history. We can all strive to do the same thing, in much smaller ways, by shifting that drive for recognition from having the nicest toys to being remembered for helping others.

Like King, as our bank accounts grow, we should be looking for ways to contribute to society as a whole, rather than striving to be first in a competition that doesn’t even exist.

Summary

Martin Luther King, Jr. may not be remembered for his personal finance advice but his writings have inspired millions with their lessons on hard work and living a life of servitude as well as his teachings on justice and equality.

Today, we look at some of his most moving statements on money, to show how individuals can be their own agents of economic change. King knew that financial freedom was a freedom worth fighting for – and he wanted you to know it too.

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About the author

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Stephanie Faris has written about finance for entrepreneurs and marketing firms since 2013. She spent nearly a year as a writer for a credit card processing service and has written about finance for numerous marketing firms and entrepreneurs. Her work has appeared on Retirable, The Motley Fool, MoneyGeek, Ecommerce Insiders, GoBankingRates, and ThriveBy30. Learn more about Stephanie on her website or find her on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.