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Wealth Creation or Economic Justice: Reflections on the MLK event at GVSU

January 19, 2010

Several hundred people gathered early this afternoon at the Allendale campus of Grand Valley State University to participate in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. event. The event began with a silent march from library to field house, with signs along the way acknowledging historical moments in King’s life.

After a few songs and comments from GVSU administrators, the keynote speaker, Randal Pinkett, was invited to the podium. Pinkett is, according to his website, founder, chairman and CEO of BCT Partners, a multimillion dollar consulting firm based in Newark, NJ, that specializes in information technology, organizational development and public policy. So what did a man who has made millions doing consulting work for Microsoft, Pfizer & Hewlett-Packard have to say to people on MLK day?

Pinkett used the metaphor from Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, to communicate his idea that we all can be trailblazers and create our own road in life. The speaker felt that children have this sense that they can do anything they want because of their innocence and that we should all nurture that desire. Pinkett said that this was the message that Dr. King gave us……that we all can achieve anything that we can imagine.

At one level I wasn’t disagreeing with many of the statements that Pinkett made, but as I thought about them I came to the conclusion that most of the statements he made were shallow phrases, phrases that we always share with students in order to give them some hope about the future. Of course many people want to believe that we can achieve anything if we just try really hard, but this has little to do with the message and legacy of Dr. King.

Pinkett said he was going to address the issue of Wealth Creation, something he has written about in books like Campus CEO and No Money Down CEO. However, the speaker never addressed this issue. In response, it might be worth looking at what Dr. King had to say about wealth and economic justice.

King began with a focus on civil rights, but eventually evolved to a more mature vision of economic justice. Once King moved his base of operations to the North he began to reflect on the devastating and systemic poverty that Blacks lived in. In Chicago King began working on an anti-slums campaign and soon realized that there were economic forces that criticized King. This criticism lead King to write:

“You can’t talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with the captains of industry….Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism.”

King believed that the nation owed Black people for the years of free labor under slavery and the years of underpaid labor in the free market system. King didn’t necessarily call what the nation owed Black people reparations; rather he called it a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.

“No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures, which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. Such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest. I am proposing, therefore, that just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial.” (From Why We Can’t Wait)

Another important aspect of King’s insights about economic justice was his critique of military spending versus funding social programs. In his Beyond Vietnam speech King said that the US spends thousands to kill each enemy combatant in South East Asia, but spends only a few dozen on each poor person in the US. King understood that the Vietnam War was not only immoral, but it also stole precious resources from the Black community.

Lastly, it is important to note that King’s last months were spent working on the Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign said nothing about Wealth Creation or Black Entrepreneurs, it was a campaign that demanded economic justice for the poor that would have used the tactic of mass civil disobedience, had King not been assassinated.

For Grand Valley State University to invite someone who has made millions of dollars as a consultant to corporate America to speak at its MLK Day celebration is questionable at best. I for one felt that the speaker cheapened the memory of Dr. King.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Love4MI permalink
    January 19, 2010 12:29 pm

    I thought Dr. Pinkett’s message was wonderful (and certainly did not “cheapen” Dr. King’s memory)! He received a well-deserved standing ovation. And I’m not sure you paid complete attention. Dr. Pinkett didn’t talk about Dr. King’s message, he talked about Dr. King’s early life and his mindset: the mindset of a trailblazer, which he argued, is the same mindset of entrepreneurs who create wealth. To say the choice of Dr. Pinkett was questionable is, well, questionable.

  2. January 19, 2010 2:00 pm

    I did pay attention to what he said and even mention that Pinkett used the trail blazing metaphor is describing what Dr. King did. As I said, I didn’t disagree with that analogy, what I object to is that Mr. Pinkett then uses Dr. King’s role model as a trailblazer to infer that we all should follow our dreams, even if those dreams are to become a CEO of a multimillion dollar company.

    My main critique was to point out that I don”t think Dr. King endorsed capitalism, he endorsed economic justice and fighting for the poor and disadvantaged. How does what Mr. Pinkett do as a CEO correspond to what Dr. King did in his Poor People’s Campaign? That is why I think the choice to bring Mr. Pinkett was questionable.

  3. January 19, 2010 2:42 pm

    I wasn’t at the event but I do know if anyone was paying attention it was you Jeff. Once again thank you for this article, everything that glitters isn’t gold, just because what someone is saying sounds nice to our ears we still have to listen closely to the hidden agenda and meaning.

  4. FatherofFour permalink
    January 19, 2010 6:28 pm

    This is what I dislike about some blogs: it is sometimes an armchair approach to opinion-editorials. I was at the event (I’ve also heard Dr. Pinkett speak before) and visited Dr. Pinkett’s website per your link. He has started several socially-responsible business ventures that help the underserved. The majority of the work his current company does involves helping low-income residents (http://www.randalpinkett.com/faith/social_entrepreneurship.asp). It appears even his MIT doctoral dissertation was focused on low-income communities (http://lgo.mit.edu/?fileName=news_articles/lfm_pinkett_neighborhood/lfm_pinkett_neighborhood.html). In other words, he has not made millions from corporations, he has forgone making making millions to help the underserved. Please get your facts about Dr. Pinkett (so, with all due respect, people like sherimunselll aren’t further misled) before characterizing him as someone who does not endorse “economic justice and fighting for the poor and disadvantaged.” It seems to me that is exactly what Dr. Pinkett is doing.

  5. January 19, 2010 7:21 pm

    People are still missing my main point, which is what does Mr. Pinkett’s Wealth Creation model have to do with Dr. King’s analysis of economic justice. I am just having a hard time seeing how King, who was calling for a economic bill of writes for the disadvantaged, who organized the Poor People’s Campaign, which was not asking for charity, but demanding justice and who was highly critical of capaitalism……how is what Mr. Pinkett does in any way at all related to what King stood for?

  6. FatherofFour permalink
    January 19, 2010 7:36 pm

    I think you’re missing the main point, which is simple: Dr. King wanted to uplift the economic conditions of poor people; Dr. Pinkett (not Mr. Pinkett) has been working to uplift the economic conditions of poor people through his many ventures. His model for doing so (from his website) is called “social entrepreneurship.”

  7. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 19, 2010 7:43 pm

    I understand that that is what he is doing, but to me it is not what Dr. King was advocating in terms of social justice. King condemned market capitalism, he didn’t say let’s use market capitalism as a vehicle for change. However, it seems that we just may disagree on this point. I do appreciate the dialogue.

  8. FatherofFour permalink
    January 19, 2010 7:54 pm

    I, too, appreciate the dialogue. And our disagreement is fine, however, you must still take ownership of the fact that your original blog was thick on Dr. King’s “vehicle” and very thin on Dr. Pinkett’s “vehicle”. You painted Dr. Pinkett as a pure capitalist with no regard for the underserved (or, at least, you did not research and make mention of his work with the underserved) and, clearly, that is not a fair characertization of him. While you may not agree with Dr. Pinkett’s approach, to say that he: 1) was a questionable choice as a speaker, and 3) cheapened Dr. King’s memory was questionable at best and insulting at worst both to me and, I imagine, to Love4MI too.

  9. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 19, 2010 8:02 pm

    For me there is a quantitative difference between working for the kind of economic justice that Dr. King spoke of a struggled for and the more charitable approach that Dr. Pinkett takes, which is within the confines of a market system. The reason why I object to the choice of having someone like Dr. Pinkett as a speaker for the MLK day is that it opens the window for corporate America to sponsor MLK events as a way of hiding their exploitation of people and the planet. Wouldn’t GVSU inviting someone like Michael Eric Dyson, author of several books on Dr. King or Dr. Manning Marable, author of the book “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America” as speakers?

    I have been to MLK events in this community since they began and too often they have speakers who do not advocate the radical social change that Dr. King gave his life for.

  10. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 20, 2010 1:26 am

    Martin Luther King spoke very directly to the kind of charity model that Pinkett appears to be following. Here’s a quote:

    “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked.”

    In other words, I think that Jeff is correct–Dr. King’s legacy includes the message, often ignored, that charity toward “discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace” is not a real answer. Dr. King states unequivocally in this particular speech that a new social order must be established. He said, “…one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”

    This is not a comfortable speech for many people. Like Fatherof Four, most Americans like to compartmentalize Dr. King’s beliefs, and select the warm, cuddly ones (like children of different colors playing together, and people ‘following their dreams’) and then shape them to fit our capitalist model. But that’s not what Dr. King believed. And to bring a capitalist to force-fit Dr. King’s message as a rationalization of his life path is, in fact, pretty offensive.

    Also, I must say that I really dislike that term “underserved.” To me, it seems like a term that implies that the poor in this country are simply lacking in some services that, if obtained, will turn their lives around, and that’s a word-game attempt to veil the foundational injustice of our current social model.

  11. FatherofFour permalink
    January 20, 2010 4:06 am

    Jeff and Kate: Based on your criteria there are very few people who would be suitable speakers. For example, Dr. Dyson willingly participates within the confines of our capitalist market system. He once hosted a corporate-sponsored, syndicated radio program. Dr. Marable is indeed more radical but still willingly profits from his speaking, writing, and other works.

    Furthermore, so as to not allow Kate to compartmentalize Dr. King, in the same speech she references, Dr. King also said the following:

    “Now, don’t think you have me in a bind today. I’m not talking about communism. What I’m talking about is far beyond communism. What I’m saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.”

    In this regard, Dr. King advocates a combination of capitalism -and- communism. That begins to sound like the “social entrepreneurship” and “double-bottom line” that Dr. Pinkett advocates on his website. It is certainly not anti-capitalism as the two of you would suggest.

    Given this, rather than saying that Dr. Pinkett attempted to “force-fit Dr. King’s message as a rationalization for his life path,” it might be more accurate to say that you are both distorting Dr. King’s message into something it is clearly not. And that, Kate, is what is offensive.

  12. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 20, 2010 5:01 am

    FatherofFour, unless you have a complete financial statement of how much money Dr. Pinkett makes, and then turns around and gives to the poor, it’s disingenous of you to state that he “has not made millions from corporations, he has forgone making making millions to help the underserved.” The statements on his site are public relations copy, written by an advertising professional. They don’t say if 75 percent of his profits or 1 percent go to the people you insist on calling the “underserved.”

    It’s also disingenous of you to cherry-pick one statement from a speech that is entirely about a new social order to prove your point. The very next sentence of the speech is, “Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated. ” Then he goes on to tell the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, and concludes with, “He [Jesus] said, in other words, “Your whole structure must be changed.” Your WHOLE STRUCTURE.

    Dr. Pinkett is running a multi-million dollar corporation. He is undeniably part of the capitalist system. And you know what? Even if Pinkett gave 90 percent of his take to charity, charity is not going to turn around the inherent injustice of our current system. That’s the whole point of the SCLC Presidential Address. I do understand that someone not open to that message will try to extract a different meaning from the speech, but it is clear *from the entire text* what Dr. King was advocating, as Jeff pointed out, is putting an end to the system that allows an overclass to profit from the misery of the workers and the poor.

    Jeff’s article supplies plenty of other examples of the direction and development of Dr. King’s belief system, which you apparently find convenient to simply ignore rather than address and counter into your argument.

    You have every right to feel good about Pinkett as a speaker if you like–but the connection between what he’s doing and what Dr. King advocated seems to me to be tenuous at best.

  13. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 20, 2010 5:23 am

    Just a couple of other points: At the end of the SCLC event and Dr. King’s keynote address, Dr. King and the organization called on the government to change their attitude of “hostility to the poor” in the way it spent money on military funding rather than on addressing poverty. His vision of change clearly went beyond a reform model because the statement goes on to speak about about inherent flaws of “racisim, poverty, militarism and materialism” in America’s culture, and it concludes by saying “The reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”

    He also stated: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”

  14. FatherofFour permalink
    January 20, 2010 5:43 am

    My statements are not disingenuous Kate. As long as Dr. Pinkett is using his time and talents in the service of others, he is forgoing opportunities that could be more lucrative. I don’t need his financial statements to make that assertion. Perhaps he has not forgone millions of dollars but he has certainly forgone dollars.

    It is also not disingenuous to cherry-pick one statement. The statement I excerpted brings much-needed clarity to the incomplete picture painted by you and Jeff. Dr. King is unequivocally clear that he is not anti-capitalism. However, the interpretation of King’s message by you and Jeff completely obscures this fact. According to Dr. King, changing the WHOLE STRUCTURE does not mean eliminating all aspects of the current structure. He argues for a “higher synthesis” of capitalism and communism. Nothing in your posts (or Jeff’s posts) refutes this fact. Therefore, it is you who is “conveniently” ignoring information rather than “addressing the counter into your argument.”

    I am not arguing to make a direct connection between Dr. Pinkett’s work and Dr. King’s position (and, as I said before, based on your arguments very few people would even qualify). I am arguing to refute the insulting notion that Dr. Pinkett “cheapens” (Jeff’s word) Dr. King’s memory and bringing him as a speaker is “offensive” (your word). While Dr. Pinkett’s work may not fit into your characterization of what Dr. King advocated for, I submit that Dr. King would be extremely proud of Dr. Pinkett, his work, and his accomplishments.

  15. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 20, 2010 7:08 am

    I know I can quote Dr. King until I’m blue in the face, and come up with 40 or 50 quotes to counter your one that supposedly “supports” capitalism, and you still will remain unswayed, because your own argument suits you, and you’re obviously very impressed with Randal Pinkett. But I’d like to submit one more King quote, and you can tell me where you see a pro-capitalism statement in it.

    During a speech in Frogmore, South Carolina in 1966 Dr. King said: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums … we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong … with capitalism … There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

    Now, as to your second point: Would Dr. King have been proud of Dr. Pinkett? I don’t think that you or I could say either way. Dr. Pinkett certainly has an impressive academic resume and a pleasing presence, but basically he’s a businessman–a highly successful one–who won first place on a reality TV show.

    He’s obviously very good at self-promotion because just about everything I find online, with the exception of a International Movie Data Base page and a Wikipedia entry, is something that Randal Pinkett posted about himself. His charities and speeches make him look good–which is advantageous to a man heading a multi-million dollar company.

    The De Vos family could be said to be operating on a similar model. Would Dr. King have been proud of them, too? They certainly are highly successful at business. They definitely trumpet all of their charities and support of “worthy” social causes just as loudly and proudly. They’ve probably given a lot more money to the “underserved” than Dr. Pinkett has. So maybe Dr. King would have been even prouder of them? That’s the natural extension of your argument here.

    Jeff’s choice of “cheapened” as an descriptor may have been insulting to you, but given what I have read about Dr. King’s beliefs, I find it, forgive the pun, right on the money.

  16. FatherofFour permalink
    January 20, 2010 10:41 pm

    Both Jeff’s choice of words and your choice of words are indeed insulting to me.

    I never said Dr. King was pro-capitalism. It is very clear that he was not pro-capitalism. I said that Dr. King was not anti-capitalism. That is a different assertion than the one you attempted to refute. You are trying to compartmentalize my message.

    Advocating for a “democratic socialism” (per your quote) does not preclude maintaining certain elements of capitalism. Once again, in fact, Dr. King argued for a -synthesis- of capitalism and communism, which is neither a complete repudiation nor a full endorsement of either truth.

    And, yes, I have great respect for Dr. Pinkett as do others within my circle. He is more than a businessman but I won’t spend trying to convince you of that. I find that his work, forgive the pun, has enriched the lives of others.

  17. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 21, 2010 1:02 am

    I’m not trying to compartmentalize your message–just pin it down.

    First you state unequivocally that Pinkett has forgone “millions of dollars” of profits in order to give that money to the poor. Then you back down and say, well, maybe not millions–when I pointed out that you have no way of knowing how much money he’s actually donated to anyone–but hey, he’s given lots of money and done lots of good. How do you know? Because he says he has! Sorry, but that’s not really very convincing.

    Second, you state that Dr. King would embrace the idea of “social entrepreneurship” when there’s absolutely no proof in anything that Dr. King wrote or said that supports this idea–in fact, just the opposite as Jeff Smith pointed out through the evolution of Dr. King’s own words and actions. You have not provided a single quote that would show how “social entrepreneurship” as a wealth creation model has anything to do with Dr. King’s message. I’ve provided numerous quotes to show that a wealth creation/charity model was the last thing that Dr. King was advocating. Remember “flinging a coin to a beggar”?

    Third, you state that “the MAJORITY [caps mine] of the work [Pinkett’s] current company does involves helping low-income residents.” Not true. The majority of Dr. Pinkett’s enterprise goes into his multi-million dollar BCT Enterprises. From its website, the description of this company is: “BCT Partners is a consulting firm that provides Information Technology (IT) and Program Management services to corporations, the public sector, and nonprofit clients. BCT combines functional expertise with industry experience to deliver solutions that meet clients’ needs. BCT’s IT practice blends project management, business analysis, infrastructure development, and collaborative technologies to deliver solutions to pharmaceutical and healthcare companies. ”

    Wow–and we all know how much pharmaceutical and healthcare companies care deeply about the poor and “underserved.” Especially since they have created a big sector of the “underserved” all by themselves. And just think–Randal Pinkett is helping them streamline that process. I’m sure that when their claims are denied or their insurance rejected ten times faster thanks to BCT, those in need will be truly grateful.

    As I said before, anyone–from the DeVos family to Exxon Mobil to Randal Pinkett–can talk about their wonderful work on behalf of the poor, or the environment, or social justice. But usually, it’s the very same people and entities who are creating the injustice, the poverty, the want, who are out there posturing about how socially responsible they are. I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not in Randal Pinkett’s case–and neither do you. Because neither one of us has any objective information about him. We only have the PR statements that he’s provided about himself.

    There is, however, lots of objective information about Dr. Martin Luther King–the direction his work had taken him, the mass civil disobedience he was planning, the words that indicate that our current model of wealth and want is corrupt.

    And that’s the real difference. Dr. King wanted that model torn down and replaced. Randal Pinkett is working, and profiting hugely, within that model. And it’s that model that is creating misery and need in millions of lives.

  18. FatherofFour permalink
    January 21, 2010 9:44 pm

    First, yes, I do take Dr. Pinkett’s word that he has done good work. Clearly, you do not. Perhaps more importantly, I take the word of others within my circle: people whom you do not have the benefit of knowing. Clearly, you cannot.

    Second, Dr. King’s synthesis of capitalism and communism does sound to me like “social entrepreneurship”. Clearly, that is not the case for you.

    Third, I take my cues in describing the MAJORITY of Dr. Pinkett’s work being focus on low-income communities from his website. It is stated clearly there. Once again, I take him at his word. Once again, clearly, you do not.

    Finally, nothing you have said refutes my core arguments: 1) Dr. King was not anti-capitalism, 2) as a social entrepreneur, Dr. Pinkett’s presence neither cheapens nor is offensive to a program celebrating Dr. King.

  19. FatherofFour permalink
    January 22, 2010 5:05 pm

    We chose Dr. Pinkett for “many of the things he is doing for our youth and the communities.”

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