ATLANTA (AP) — In the segregated South, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. knew that the path to equality in America was through economic empowerment, and as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, he encouraged his congregation to have savings accounts and own homes.
His son, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was also focused on the wealth gap as a barrier to full access to the American Dream. At the end of his life, the younger King was committed to ending poverty and opening opportunities for all citizens.
On Wednesday, two of King's children helped break ground on a center for financial literacy and economic empowerment at Ebenezer, where the elder minister and his son co-pastored from 1960 until King was assassinated in 1968. The Martin Luther King Sr. Resource Facility will be the flagship for Operation HOPE, a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization that educates underserved and low-income Americans about personal financial responsibility.
Operation HOPE founder John Hope Bryant said the center, to be one of 11 nationwide, will also be an extension of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of economic equality.
"Today, financial literacy is a civil rights issue," Bryant told a crowd gathered at a ceremony for the $5 million, 30,000-square foot facility scheduled to open early next year. "If you don't understand financial literacy, you're an economic slave."
The center will offer hands-on financial case management, wealth building through homeownership and small business ownership and mainstream banking services. The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer, said that locating the center at the historic church is appropriate, given its mission of social justice.
"We believe that access to capital ... is a critical component in the next phase of the freedom movement," Warnock said. "A community cannot rebuild its walls without access. We need this kind of hope. Today is one day, but it's part of a mighty movement."
Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and Steve Bartlett, chief executive officer of the Financial Services Roundtable, also attended the groundbreaking. Bair, a former civil rights attorney, urged greater oversight of predatory lending institutions and the need for financial education, especially for minorities.
Bair pointed to a recent FDIC study that revealed that one in four Americans, or 60 million adults don't have bank accounts or use higher-priced providers for basic services like payroll check cashing. In Atlanta, that number is one in two for black and Hispanic households.
"We need to change that," Bair said at a forum on financial literacy at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta after the groundbreaking ceremony. "We've got to turn those numbers around."
Ambassador Andrew Young, who worked alongside King during the civil rights movement, has dedicated much of his life since then to ending global poverty. He reminded the audience that King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech opened with the idea that America had presented the Negro with "a bad check."
"Dr. King refused to believe that our nation was bankrupt when it came to cashing the checks of the poor," said Young, who is the global spokesman for Operation HOPE.
Martin Luther King III — president and chief executive officer of The King Center, also on Auburn Avenue — and his sister, the Rev. Bernice King, who is set to take the helm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which her father co-founded in 1957, were on hand during the ceremony.
"This truly continues, in a real sense, the legacy of our family," King III said. "While he didn't live to see it come to fruiting, my father was talking about economic empowerment.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.