Use MLK’s Words to Inspire

Photo by Raffaele Nicolussi on Unsplash


Vincent Adejumo, a lecturer in African-American Studies at the University of Florida, recently had a column in the Gainesville Sun titled “African-Americans still recovering from Great Recession”. In a previous column, I criticized his interpretation of the statistics he quoted. Here, I question his selective use of a Martin Luther King, Jr., quotation.

Adejumo tried to build credibility by saying he teaches a class that studies “capitalism as it pertains to African-Americans.” The term “capitalism” is a Marxist pejorative for free markets. (While not first used by Marxists, its common use comes from Soviet-era translations of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.) Free markets are an economic system in which individual decisions, rather than centralized control, govern the allocation of resources. While one could argue the outcomes for African-Americans have been and are unequal, that is a societal issue, not a role or function of free markets. In fact, economic models show that any form of discrimination, whether in hiring employees or selecting customers, is inefficient and results in sub-optimal results (i.e., lower profits) for businesses.

In the column, Adejumo invoked Martin Luther King, Jr, using this quote: “But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”

Adejumo says the quote is from a Harlem speech in 1967. I was unable to find it, and it does not appear in MLK’s most famous 1967 Harlem speech: “Beyond Vietnam.” I did find the quote in a 1968 speech given at the National Cathedral (“Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”). It’s a long, rambling speech focused more on global poverty than the plight of African-Americans. Entire paragraphs could have been written by Bernie Sanders. 

The speech contains obvious falsehoods: “no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil” and “Before the Pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth, we were here.” King also claimed that “extreme rightists” were the “forces of ill will,” which is odd since Democrats like Bull Connor were using fire hoses against civil rights protestors, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed with support from a higher proportion of Republicans than Democrats (80% vs. 60%).

The 1968 speech is a far cry from the soaring rhetoric of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech for which he is most often remembered. In that speech, King appealed to our founding documents to encourage all Americans to practice what we preach: “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… I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

Another great Martin Luther King, Jr., speech that is especially applicable when dealing with students was given at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia in 1967 (“What is Your Life’s Blueprint”). In this speech, King encouraged kids to believe in their own value and to not let others degrade their value. That seems exactly opposite to Adejumo’s defeatist message that African-American households earn less income because of their skin color or institutional racism.

King’s words serve as great guidance for all young adults getting ready to enter the workforce:

  • “Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody.”
  • “You must have as the basic principle the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor.”
  • “I would urge you to study hard, to burn the midnight oil; I would say to you, don’t drop out of school…. in spite of your economic plight, in spite of the situation that you’re forced to live in — stay in school.”

Imagine if young African-Americans were exposed to those lines early in their school careers, rather than hearing the constant drone that racism will keep them from being successful. If they have no hope of success, why bother preparing for success? This is self-fulfilling prophecy and a sure way to make poverty an intergenerational curse.