Martin Luther King’s Money [And The Freedom Budget?]

by J. Money - Published January 19, 2015

martin luther king jr mug shot

“There is nothing in all the world greater than freedom. It is worth paying for; it is worth losing a job for; it is worth going to jail for. I would rather be a free pauper than a rich slave. I would rather die in abject poverty with my convictions than live in inordinate riches with the lack of self respect.” – Martin Luther King, Jr

I was originally going to blog about how money is only temporary, but then I looked at the calendar and realized it’s Martin Luther King day. So instead, like a true nerd, I decided to find out if the good doctor was as amazing with his finances as he was fighting for social equality ;)

And the short answer is, yes and no. Yes he could have kept all his earnings to himself and better secured his family’s finances, however his #1 mission in life as we all know was not to grow his personal wealth or retire early (was that even a “thing” back then?), but to advance our civil rights. Which of course he succeeded magnificently.

True to his words above, he left this world with much more conviction than money:

MLK Jr. died not only without financial assets, but without a will. Despite his widely known premonitions concerning his own early demise… King died intestate. Although his wife Coretta had admonished him for years to set some funds aside for the higher education of their four children, King left his family with no appreciable benefits from his five books, hundreds of speaking engagements, his ministry, and of most concern to his wife, the $54,600 he earned as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. While Mrs. King thought some of the award money should be invested for the children’s sake, her husband donated the funds to the movement.

That $54,600 he was awarded in 1964, btw, is equal to about $416,000 in today’s dollars. Plenty enough to secure your kids’ future for a while. (Interesting side note, legendary singer Harry Belafonte ended up raising money to ensure that King’s children were supported through childhood and educated. This article over at Salon.com goes into a bunch of things most people don’t know about M.L.K. if you’re interested in reading more.)

So yes, he was good at prioritizing where his money went, it just didn’t go into his own pockets :) His daughter Bernice King, however, rings in at a fair $1.5 million according to CelebrityNetWorth.com (don’t click that unless you REALLY want to be sucked into famous peoples’ money – it’s addicting!)

What Dr. King was able to do really makes you wonder about your own legacy, doesn’t it? What we will all leave behind in terms of making a positive impact on society? Do we want to be known for being awesome at our money or being awesome at something much farther reaching?

I suspect days like today are set up to inspire and remind us of the power of dreaming big on top of giving thanks to a tireless leader. Did you now there’s actually only two other people in American history that have a national holiday in their honor? George Washington and Christopher Columbus.

And then there’s the “Freedom Budget!”

During my search for answers, I also came across another item you might find fascinating – something called The Freedom Budget that M.L.K approved of. It was put out in 1966 by the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and was a “practical, step-by-step plan for wiping out poverty in America during the next 10 years.” Dr. King believed it would get people closer to financial independence.

freedom budget bookThere were 7 areas outlined to achieve this “freedom from want”:

  1. To provide full employment for all who are willing and able to work, including those who need education or training to make them willing and able.
  2. To assure decent and adequate wages to all who work.
  3. To assure a decent living standard to those who cannot or should not work.
  4. To wipe out slum ghettos and provide decent homes for all Americans.
  5. To provide decent medical care and adequate educational opportunities to all Americans, at a cost they can afford.
  6. To purify our air and water and develop our transportation and natural resources on a scale suitable to our growing needs.
  7. To unite sustained full employment with sustained full production and high economic growth.

How would this be done? By “budget[ing] a fraction of the $200 increase [per person] in Federal tax revenues to provide jobs for all who can work and adequate income of other types for those who cannot.”

This was Dr. King’s financial dream for us, but 50 years later we’re still far from it…

[You can read the entire Freedom Budget here (84 pages), or the summary of it here (24 pages). I also happened across an interesting sermon King wrote on how people worship money as if it were a god. You can find that here if you’d like to see (3 pages): The False God of Money]

So, two things to consider as you go about your day today:

  1. Really think about the legacy you’re currently leaving behind (or not leaving behind?)
  2. Make sure you have a will ;) It wouldn’t be a bad idea to use this holiday as a reminder to check up on it every year going forward as well, fwiw.

And that’s Martin Luther King on money! I’ll leave you with one last passage spoken by him just two months before his assassination… It’s amazing how well he lived his mission.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.

Jay loves talking about money, experimenting, blasting hip-hop, and hanging out with his two beautiful boys. You can check out all of his online projects at jmoney.biz. Thanks for reading the blog!

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Aimee January 19, 2015 at 6:08 am

Have you seen Selma?? Such a great movie. So moving, and interestingly timed with current events.

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2 Taylor Lee January 19, 2015 at 8:14 am

Oh my gosh, Selma is so amazing. It saddens me how much fight there’s been to secure black people basic civil rights and how many systemic prejudices hurt their livelihoods still, today!

Fun Fact: The MLK speeches shown in Selma, the movie, were not actually the same as he gave way back when. The MLK estate requires a licensing fee (presumably how his descendants are supported) to use those speeches, and the writers of the movie didn’t have the funds to pay. So they made up speeches, of similar thematic structure, of their own.

Another Fun Fact: The four freedoms, including the “freedom from want” described in the post, goes way back to a 1941 State of the Union address by FDR. The other three freedoms where the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and the freedom of fear (freedom from aggression from ones neighbors and around the world). All things that I’m sure Dr. King and the rest of us can get behind and think about on this holiday.

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3 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:13 pm

I haven’t seen it yet and didn’t even know what it was about until y’all chimed in here. Now I’ll make sure to go watch it – thx!

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4 Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life January 19, 2015 at 6:26 am

Interesting that he left nothing behind. I think it can be tricky to find the balance between the greater good and being necessarily selfish with your money.

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5 How To Save Money January 19, 2015 at 7:37 am

Very noble of him to donate the money but wish he’d left some for the kids..

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6 Dee @ Color Me Frugal January 19, 2015 at 8:43 am

Wow, I had no idea about MLK’s finances. You have to admire the passion of someone who feels so strongly about a cause that they donate all of their money to it. I was sad to hear that he left nothing for his kids, but it sounds like they did well in the end. And what a legacy their father left.

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7 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:14 pm

Unfortunately his heirs are always in legal battles now because no one knows what he really wanted in the end :(

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8 Robin January 19, 2015 at 8:47 am

Really makes you wonder if we are giving enough of our own money away (I’m not.) I don’t want to end up being remembered at being good at debt payoff but stingy with my money. :(

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9 [email protected] and the Beach January 19, 2015 at 8:59 am

Wow some fascinating facts that I had no idea about. I think it’s always interesting to think about the legacy you want to leave behind. Financial is part of it, but even more so is one’s character. MLK certainly certainly has left a huge impression on the world and his speech is still so incredibly timely.

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10 John @ Frugal Rules January 19, 2015 at 9:02 am

Very interesting, though I think measures up with what I would assume on some level. Like Robin mentioned, it makes you wonder if we as individuals are being giving enough and have something we care about that much. That’s also not to mention the fact of how important wills are – it scares the crap out of me what the government might decide to do with our kiddos to not have something in place to dictate what we want done.

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11 Brian @ Luke1428 January 19, 2015 at 9:05 am

Great read J! I think it just goes to prove that in the end you are more known by what you’ve done and who you’ve touched than by how much you’ve made.

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12 Brian @ Debt Discipline January 19, 2015 at 9:26 am

Although he didn’t leave any assets when he died, he did leave a legacy/estate that the could earn money for years to come based on his previous work.

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13 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:15 pm

yes, definitely!! though it’s always tied up in legal battles from what I’ve seen researching… can’t imagine the power it all would have had things been clearly set up from the beginning.

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14 Jon @ Money Smart Guides January 19, 2015 at 10:06 am

Interesting post. I would have never guessed that he didn’t leave anything for his children. I wonder though if it was more common back then to not have a will and plan for things after your pass away.

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15 Mrs. Frugalwoods January 19, 2015 at 10:43 am

I think MLK’s dedication to something so much bigger than just his own interests is inspiring. This does give me pause and makes me reflect on how valuable it is to think beyond just myself and my own goals. In some ways, it’s easy to just work on our own aspirations, but much harder to translate those efforts to a cause that impacts other people. Very inspiring read!

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16 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:16 pm

You should create some “frugal learning” camps on your future homestead to leave a legacy, haha…

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17 Deacon January 19, 2015 at 11:17 am

That is crazy that he didnt leave his family with any money or a will, especially since he knew there was a high likeliness that he would die early. I am all about giving to worthy causes, but I also think you have to take care of your family too. The man did leave a solid legacy nonetheless.

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18 Noonan January 19, 2015 at 11:45 am

MLK is granite proof that a legacy can consist of something greater than mere dollar bills. Great post J$!

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19 Christine @ The Pursuit of Green January 19, 2015 at 12:31 pm

An inspiring day:P It’s a good day for reflection on everything we do (not just what we do with money). Gotta live life well and do right. No one wants to end up being a Scrooge!

On the flip side it’s a wonderful day for driving since no one is out on the road! Alas I only know because I have to work today.

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20 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:17 pm

Hahaha….. Reminds me of SNL over the weekend. When MLK comes back to life and learns how things are now all these years later :) One being that most people associate MLK day as a day off from work – hah!

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21 Crystal January 19, 2015 at 1:32 pm

Awesome post! Loved all the hard work and research!

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22 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:19 pm

Hey, thanks Crystal!

To be honest I was super nervous about running this because it was so money-focused vs what he accomplished as an incredible man. Didn’t even mean for it to come across inspirational really, but it seems it has based on some email I’ve gotten! So hooray!

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23 Ben Luthi January 19, 2015 at 1:39 pm

I definitely think his dedication to his cause is inspiring, but I’m sure it made things a little harder for his family after he was gone.

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24 Lauren January 19, 2015 at 3:09 pm

So interesting! I definitely would have thought that he had some sort of estate that was left to his children. It would certainly be nice if we could implement parts of that Freedom Budget today.

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25 Lizzy January 19, 2015 at 3:09 pm

Thank you for posting about the almost forgotten Freedom Budget. If this had actually happened, We would certainly have a much more egalitarian society.

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26 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:19 pm

Had you heard about it before? Was brand new to me – I was pleasantly surprised! :)

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27 Shannon @ Financially Blonde January 19, 2015 at 3:17 pm

It’s funny because I ask clients all the time about their legacy and what they plan to leave when they go and some people really want their children to have something and some are really adamant on their kids making their own success. I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I want my son to have something, but I don’t want him to NEED something when I go. Thankfully we have the will covered, but a good note is that wills are based on state laws so if you move states, you will need another will drawn for the state in which you reside.

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28 Russell C January 19, 2015 at 3:49 pm

I don’t know if you know this, but the sermon you quoted at the end of your post is the source for the (mis)quote on the MLK monument in DC. The whole sermon is quite good.
“http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/” He really hits on some things regarding money and foolish stewardship:
” It often causes us to live above our means. (Make it plain) It’s nothing but the drum major instinct. Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? (Amen) [laughter] You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. (Make it plain) But it feeds a repressed ego.” -MLK. Great article. I always enjoy reading your work.

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29 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:21 pm

Hey thanks! Glad you’re enjoying it :)

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30 Tawcan January 19, 2015 at 4:16 pm

That’s very interesting, didn’t know that he donated all his money for greater cause. If I were him I would have left some for my kids. Having said that I think he has created a great legacy.

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31 Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich January 19, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Wow, I wouldn’t have thought about connecting MLK day with money.

But it is important to think about your legacy… which is why I think it’s important to evaluate your life and where it’s going on a regular (or at least semi-regular) basis.

One of my favorite questions to ask myself is from the 4 hour workweek – something along the lines of “What would you want to spend your time doing if money were not a barrier?” – Basically, if you had loads of cash in the bank and didn’t have to worry about an income, where would you spend your time and energy?

Of course, it might not be possible for all of us to leave our jobs behind, but it gives you a perspective on how you can guide your career in the right direction, fulfilling things you can start to do in your free time, or places where you can donate your money (I think this is so important and a really underestimated way to leave behind a ‘legacy’). If donating money is what you can do, it might mean being an unsung hero, but what’s so wrong with that? At least you’re advancing the good causes of the world & helping people who need it.

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32 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:22 pm

Yes! Excellent question to ask yourself regularly! (And awesome book too).

I ask something similar almost every day – “What would make me happy today?” That way I can try and accomplish it and get excited in the mornings :) Even if I fail, haha…

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33 Josh January 19, 2015 at 5:34 pm

Random side note: Jason, over at Dividend Mantra, refers to his investments as his “Freedom Fund”.

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34 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:23 pm

Yes! He does, doesn’t he?

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35 Crystal January 19, 2015 at 6:14 pm

I love the fact that you researched for the theme today. I had no idea that he had used all his money for his movement. That had to suck for his wife even more when he died. I’d have been mad for a while. Anyway, thanks for the post.

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36 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:23 pm

I RARELY research anything for any of my posts too, haha… Just got super curious and look where it led! Should do it more often :)

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37 Valerie January 19, 2015 at 6:41 pm

That’s sad. I’m turning 35 and thinking a lot about legacy lately and securing my childs future. So much so that were opting out of having a party for her second birthday in favor of a stock/bond purchased in her name and a small cake cutting with 5 members of the immediate family. While I don’t want to forgo cherished childhood memories I just think we’ll have bigger expenses down the road.

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38 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:24 pm

That’s a brilliant idea!!! That stock or bond will be worth a TON in the future too. I also want to be conscious of these types of things as my kids grow up too. Thanks for sharing :)

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39 Michelle January 19, 2015 at 6:54 pm

This post made me a little teary eyed which is awkward when you’re the only American sitting in a coffee shop abroad. I absolutely loved this post. He put his money where his values were. Wow.

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40 J. Money January 21, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Wowww really??? Thanks so much for telling me! I literally almost scrapped the post altogether cuz didn’t think it was that helpful, haha… I was just curious and decided to run it anyways :) So yay! And where the heck are you right now? Very cool!

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41 Michelle February 7, 2015 at 7:37 pm

I’m in Australia :)

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42 J. Money February 9, 2015 at 12:11 pm

What? Really?? That is bad ass!

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43 Mr Ikonz @ Project Ikonz January 20, 2015 at 12:16 am

Mrs Ikonz and I have always had the desire to provide not only for ourselves and Ikonz Jr, but also to set aside money to think about setting up a foundation, so we can allocate free cashflow to charitable causes.

King giving up all he had to his cause shows his true commitment, yet it would have been amazingly difficult for his family to deal with him leaving them with nothing at the time.

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44 Fig @ Figuring Money Out January 20, 2015 at 5:11 pm

Very interesting! I was surprised he didn’t leave his family anything but it’s a great example of leaving a legacy far beyond a few dollars. His legacy continues to inspire and help people and that is truly priceless.

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45 Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank January 26, 2015 at 4:33 am

Another exciting read J. I agree that we should have a will to eliminate debt and reach our financial goals. Always think that legacy should be worthwhile and fulfilling.

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46 Big_Jibbs January 30, 2015 at 6:38 pm

King is publicly seen as this great hero but to be honest I feel like I should point out that his finances were actually a complete fraud.

It is well documented that King regularly used money that was pegged for ‘civil rights advancement’ for buying booze and spending it on various women.
In fact the night before King was shot, he had spent some of that money on booze and a woman.

So here we have this person that people see as this hero, spending his days preaching ‘equality, give me money for the cause, be a good person’ was spending his nights cheating on his wife regularly, and using money that people put ‘for the cause’ being put towards drugs and his own greedy selfish needs.

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47 J. Money January 31, 2015 at 2:30 pm

I’ve heard similar rumors, but even so it doesn’t change the incredible amount of good he did for our country. Plenty of other leaders have also led less-than-proper social lives but made immense progress.

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48 Chris Blackmon December 29, 2016 at 1:19 pm

Thank you so much for the article! I’ve been researching about what makes a great leader and how they managed money.

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49 J. Money December 30, 2016 at 6:38 am

Very cool! Find a lot of interesting stuff so far?

Check out the book Rich Habits by Tom Corley if you haven’t already – might also help you on the right path: http://amzn.to/2ikxrft

It’s not based on “leadership” per se, but it is based on research on interviewing tons of wealthy people and how they got to that point – which I’m sure includes leadership more often than not.

We’ve also start a new column that Tom runs on my other site about it too if you want to check out: http://rockstarfinance.com/rich-habits/

Good luck with it all!

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