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Dr. King urged followers to be customers of Black owned businesses.

Did you get the Message?

Dr. King’s last campaign was focused on economic justice. Sanitation workers in Memphis were fighting for better safety standards and decent wages and the 39 year-old civil rights leader whose 92nd birthday would have been this week was fighting by their side. As Stanford University’s King Center has carefully documented, “The night before his assassination in April 1968, Martin Luther King told a group of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee: ‘We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.’”

King said that night, “I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in [Black-owned] Tri-State Bank – we want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis” and “You have six or seven Black insurance companies in Memphis. Take out your insurance there.”

The economic justice story of the civil rights movement includes a key role played by Black owned businesses. The Institute for New Economic Thinking reports that without the support of small businesses, the Montgomery bus boycott so prominently associated with Rosa Parks and Dr. King would have struggled to succeed. Black owned taxi companies lowered fares to match the prices of public transportation and provide rides until the city intervened, forcing the taxis to increase their fares. Then the Black community arranged for carpools using a Black-owned drugstore as the dispatch hub. In Mississippi, as Black businesses were facing economic pressures, such as distributors refusing to deliver groceries to stores, community funds were established at Black owned banks in order to prevent activists from losing their homes or businesses. Time and time again, Black Americans working in the non-violent spirit with which King led the movement were blocked, harassed and cut down for simply trying to pool resources and buy businesses to acquire an utterly ordinary amount of economic self-determination. These and numerous other stories are well documented, and the connection between Dr. King’s work and Black owned businesses is a deep one that continues today


While the assault on the very idea that Black Americans might make a living by owning a business is not the same today, rates of ownership are abysmally low and the barriers to ownership and success are high. A glaring racial wealth gap is well documented and is tied to these realities. For Black-owned businesses, the struggle for access to capital is very important. Only recently is due attention also being paid to the struggle for access to customers. Blacks and Latinx Americans buy plenty from white-owned businesses in the US, but all of us need to spend our money more intentionally in support of the diverse and brilliant Black and brown entrepreneurs operating throughout the US economy. 

We salute the Black and brown business owners in the United States. From toothbrushes and dog toys to construction grade steel and architectural services; from trash bags and truffles to trade show swag, hot sauce, corporate gifts and travel gear like luggage, clothes and accessories; and yes, insurance and banking: Every purchase you make or your company makes counts. A dollar goes to top-line revenue of a business. That company in turn accumulates operating capital, investment capability and even starts to create wealth. It also pays suppliers (and taxes) and provides for the needs of owners and employees (who are more likely to be non-white) and on and on it goes. When we are purposeful, our dollar, combined with the dollars spent by others has something powerful to say about economic justice. In 2021, let’s each do our part. In the words of Dr. King, “Nothing would would be more tragic than to stop at this point…”. 

If you’re looking for tips on how and your family can do your part, check out our post filled with tips on how to diversify your spending. And if you are ready to get your company involved, contact us today.

Conscious Customers™ helps companies and organizations be more inclusive by putting Black and Latin-owned businesses at the center of their spending and engaging their employees in doing the same at home. Reach out for more information at [email protected].