Are We Living Up To The Dream?
Today marks the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. The brilliance of the speech is that it both embraces the American ideal while criticizing the nation for failing to live up to it for all its citizens. When King talks about going to the bank of justice and finding insufficient funds, he’s saying that this Country can and should do more to live up to its Constitutional ideals. It’s a call that has unique resonance to credit unions.
Just as King believed that America could ultimately be pressured to live up to its ideals but that action was needed to make this happen, credit unions are predicated on the assumption that society works best when we empower each other to work together and hold each other accountable, but that not everyone is given equal access to the financial resources needed. Out statutory commitment to especially help those of modest means is a quintessentially American obligation. Like King, it’s predicated on the realization that not everyone has been given a fair shake but that everyone should be given an equal opportunity. It is why if you look at some of the history surrounding the civil rights movement there will be someone in the background using a credit union to start giving people the help they need to have a shot at the American dream.
For example, in North Carolina, some of the earliest credit unions were started by African American farmers who were never going to get access to mainstream American capital. When many African Americans started union jobs in the 1950s, one of the only benefits they were given was the right to join her credit union. Remember there was no Civil Rights Act until 1964.
It is why Booker T. Washington commented in 1903 that “at the bottom of education, at the bottom of politics, even at the bottom of religion, there must be economic independence.”
One of the questions that commentators have been asking over the last week is how much better America is in terms of race relations today than it was 50 years ago. To me the very question misses the point. If you want to say America has not come far enough all you have to do is look at the educational inequalities, disproportionate impact of economic downturns and the racially polarized debate over self-defense laws. If you want to conclude that race is no longer the impediment to achievement that it was 50 years ago, all you have to do is look at the President, a rising African American middle class and society’s general impatience with celebrities who harbor views more compatible with the Jim Crow era than that of a 21st Century superpower.
Striving toward racial equality is as much a never ending process as it is a goal. The challenge for credit unions is that with financial institutions so much more open to all individuals regardless of their race, color or creed today than they were 50 years ago, it is not as easy to identify when people of modest means aren’t getting the financial opportunity they should to live the American dream. So every time you or your employees look at a loan file application, you have an obligation to take an extra hard look to see if you can make that loan work. We are more than just a competitor to for-profit financial institutions. We have a unique chance and obligation to help honor the promissory note that King argued was unfilled 50 years ago today.
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