I don’t know how many of the football players of color at the University of Missouri are majoring in economics but they certainly understood the playbook of the greatest American coach in the history of civil rights. In his final speech, Martin Luther King provides a lesson about the power of money as a tool in addressing racism. It was the end of the fourth quarter of his coaching career, the final play of the game when King laid out in Memphis a strategy for his team that would allow the movement he led to continue on without him. It is the same strategy that took hold in a locker room at the University of Missouri. It is the same strategy that needs to be implemented over and again until King’s message is understood by all.
For those who may have not followed the Missouri story it has a decade long history of student demands for addressing racism at the University and demands for diversity education and diversity opportunities. Feelings escalated this academic year after a number of racist attacks on students of color, including the smearing of a swastika in a college dorm.
Jonathan Butler, a graduate student, declared he was on a hunger strike demanding the removal of the President of the University who had done little to respond to student concerns, demands and protests. Butler’s hunger strike and his willingness, “to die if necessary,” got the President and others talking (again) but results occurred only when 30 of the Missouri football players declared they would join in Butler’s demand by boycotting the rest of the football season—and there were a number of big games on the schedule. Reports placed the financial consequence for not playing the remaining games at over $1,000,000. The University President resigned a few days later. Mr. Butler’s hunger strike got attention (most importantly the attention and then solidarity of the football players) and the potential loss of revenue from the football players’ boycott led to action.
Martin Luther King wrote almost 50 years ago in the Memphis playbook: “We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we are withdrawing economic support from you. And so, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy — Wonder Bread…”
King went on to say that this was a “redistribution” of the economies of pain and suffering—if the city of Memphis was unwilling to pay their garbage men a fair wage or were discriminatory in hiring policies than the businesses of Memphis would feel the pain of the loss of revenue from all those joining the cause of the garbage men.
In Kabbalah study we always look for the unseen reality—the story that is being told as it manifests in the world. Was Martin Luther King simply teaching that “money talks” or is there a deeper level of understanding?
There is an equally simple and at the same time profound message in leveraging money as a way to combat racism. The message is: You may see the color of my skin as making me less then you—but here is another color you need to consider—the color of my money. Yes, green, just the same as the color of bills that comes out of your pocket. Empowerment for people of color is not only through leveraging the redistribution of financial pain —it is giving the message that racism will not be “bought” or tolerated. What the Missouri football players were saying is: You can’t call us the “N” word and have us be your representatives on the football field. We will not play that game even at a cost to us—losing a scholarship and an education– unless it comes with the respect and appreciation that whatever the color of your skin you are a valued member of the University.
Kudos to Mr. Butler and those courageous men of the University of Missouri football team who understood the power of the message of money—everyone is green however large or small the denomination of the bill may be. Would it not be a wonderful and healing message to grace the $20 bill with the proposed face of Rosa Parks or Harriet Tubman? Or how about Martin Luther King? Whoever is chosen let’s add some color to the green—and see everyone as green in the eyes of all.