On August 28, 1963, an estimated 250,000 people gathered in the nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — the largest civil rights gathering of its time. Today, that landmark protest is remembered for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Many can recall almost verbatim parts of the content of his “dream.” Politicians of all beliefs, for example, use his phrase, “that one day all people will be judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character” to support vastly different views on affirmative action.
To Cash a Check
The dream’s words are still aspirational and inspirational. For credit unions however, his metaphor about justice and freedom is a reminder of why coops exist. Here are his opening words with emphasis added:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we’ve 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 — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Why a Financial Metaphor?
America is the world’s leading capitalist society and its wealthiest. For many the American dream is about becoming financially well off, even wealthy. Everyone is financially accountable for important areas of their life.
He uses this metaphor because financial services are at the heart of the American enterprise. People know what cashing a check means. Checks only work if people trust that there will be sufficient funds in their account. In using this analogy, King says all Americans were given this promissory note of freedom and justice.
Credit unions, the cooperatives founded on democratic governance, self-help and common purpose, embody a critical means for this dream of individual equality to be realized.
Financial services as King presents the metaphor are built on trust, confidence and solvency. I believe that whenever any credit union for whatever reasons compromises these fundamental principles, the integrity of the entire system is eroded.
Whenever any person’s freedom is limited, the entire system of justice is compromised. Freedom is not an overnight event. Its meaning, like financial opportunity, is constantly evolving.
Since 1909, credit unions were intended to be one of the important financial options for bringing equity for all. Especially for those “who have the least or know the least, but today pay the most for financial services in America.”
On this 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, may it remind those of us who make a living from cooperative financial services, to once again acknowledge and embrace our role in bringing Martin Luther King’s dream to reality.