A Legacy Of Leadership

This weekend’s dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial reminds credit unions that they hold the mantle of progressive intent from the cooperative system's founders.


Forty-eight years ago, on August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people gathered on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial in the greatest civil rights demonstration ever.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech continues to be one of the most celebrated statements about America’s promises to its citizens. This Sunday, on the anniversary of that speech, Martin Luther King’s memorial will be unveiled during a dedication ceremony on the National Mall in Washington, DC. (update: the ceremony was postponed due to Hurricane Irene)

My First Awareness Of The Memorial Effort

More than four years ago, Jim Blaine, CEO of State Employees’ Credit Union in North Carolina, called attention to this project. In a blog published this morning on Jim Blaine on Credit Unions, Blaine recounts a story of patient persistence by Hubert Hoosman, who was seeking industry support for the memorial. Blaine’s recollection ends with this exhortation:

One of Dr. King’s great legacies was his bothersome persistence and his annoying patience. Peacefully he preached about the “fierce urgency of now.” The MLK Jr. Memorial is being built now; credit unions need to be a part of that effort! It will take some courage for you, as a credit union leader, to ask your Board to be a part of this important memorial.

But, the hardest work has already been done — site designated, budget formulated, design selected. You won’t even need to confront the police dogs, the fire hoses, nor spend a few nights in the Birmingham jail — that hard work’s been done for you, too! The MLK Jr. Memorial symbolizes the idea of equal opportunity for all. Isn’t that exactly what credit unions are all about? Haven’t we all waited long enough on this issue? We all need to sit together at the front of the bus on this one.

August 1963

Two generations later it is hard to recall the remarkable circumstances in which Dr. King spoke. His moral vision challenged an established order and way of doing things. The Civil Rights Movement was divided between those who wanted a more militant expression of power and the old-line leadership that wanted to continue making incremental changes. 

The country was divided about the best approach. There was widespread disagreement on tactics and end goals. King’s vision bridged these divisions and still animates the young and old.

The Financial Analogy

Although many people are familiar with Dr. King’s rhetoric that includes the crescendo of the “I have a dream” passages, many forget the financial metaphor that opened his address. It was about a bad check:

In a sense we have 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 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.”

Two generations later, the progress for civil rights, is real, if still unfinished. The dominant political and social issues today might not be civil rights as then understood; however, many still feel they have been given a bad check on hope, economic equity, and the ability to realize their pursuit of happiness.

Credit unions, which came to national attention during the Great Depression, were a means to lift individuals through common effort. I believe Dr. King’s challenge to those who have inherited the mantle of progressive intent from the credit union founders is simple: Do we still have a dream?

Dr. King’s answer to the crowd that day in 1963 was, “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” Is that our belief today?  


Aug. 24, 2011


  • Chip, well said. We all still need to dream that our country will strong and have funds for our childre and grandchildren.
    Stuart Weiner
  • It is if you're a right wing Republican.
  • Sometimes it just takes one person who is persistent, with a message to which we finally listen. Most often that message is common sense, sometimes revolutionary, but always it is a message that reaches the head and heart of those that think and make it their own message too.
    Dick Johnson