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MLK Lecture connects King’s legacy with economic responsibilities today

Emory alum Maggie Anderson and her family gained international attention in 2009 as they lived out her public pledge to only “buy Black” for an entire year. Anderson shared her passion fueled by their historic year — known as “The Empowerment Experiment” — as the keynote speaker for the university’s 2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture.

Anderson graduated from Emory College of Arts and Sciences in 1993 with a major in political science, and went on to earn a JD and an MBA from the University of Chicago. She is the author of “Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy.”

Speaking on “Legacy and Responsibility” for the Jan. 28 lecture, she connected her family’s experience with King’s legacy from both economic and personal standpoints.

King sought equality for all people before the law, but also sought economic justice. Even his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in 1963 dealt with the economic struggle that Black Americans had – and would continue to have – without adequately addressing civil and economic rights.

“Allow me a moment to clarify the misconception about King and Black-owned businesses,” Anderson said. “That King was fighting for equality and not empowerment; that King was anti-war and anti-wealth, fighting for the poor against the prosperous; that his legacy was more about making sure we could shop at segregated, white-owned businesses and less about building up Black-owned businesses; that he was a prince for the poor who demanded opportunities and jobs does not mean he was opposed to our ownership, our capacity and our duty to create those jobs.

“It just wasn’t his fight. His fight was about peace,” she continued. “He wanted integration, he wanted enfranchisement, he wanted to help Black people or poor people get jobs, feel safe and free.”

King called for a revolution of values to deal with these issues. He saw poverty, unemployment and lack of education and hope as violence that needed to end. Non-violence, by King’s measure, should appreciate and value the humanity and work of every person and build partnerships with all who seek a better life.

Anderson added that people didn’t hear King say “Buy Black” because he didn’t have to.

“The Black businesses were right there funding his fight, allowing his audacity,” she said. “He didn’t have to build them up – they built King up. We had economic unity. We were united – and united, we always have more power than pain.”

Today, Anderson said, “It is my responsibility and legacy to put my money in Black-owned businesses.” She challenged listeners to do the same.

“As much as this [the Empowerment Experiment] was a stand, we wanted this to be data driven and respected as a study,” Anderson said during a Q&A session with Carol E. Henderson, Emory’s vice provost for diversity and inclusion, chief diversity officer and adviser to the president.

“We felt like this specific issue – buying Black, economic justice, economic empowerment, whatever you want to call it – wasn’t seen as a serious issue,” Anderson noted. “We didn’t feel like the issue was injected into the mainstream. As much as we talked about education or health care, this issue was not talked about in the public sphere.”

Her family’s experience in 2009 helped change that, with an unprecedented amount of mainstream media, university and corporate attention to Black-owned businesses, systemic racism in the American economy and economic inequality. It also led to a landmark Kellogg study proving that 1 million jobs could be created if Black firms received a small increase in support.

Anderson also shared how King fought for Black-owned businesses and spoke of their collective buying power, stating that the same should be true today.

“The Empowerment Experiment at its heart was our attempt to find ways to fight racism, increase racial harmony and show the world a better Black America,” she said. “We’ve got to stop fighting racism with our protests and then enabling racism with our purchases. Economic unity is our most peaceful, powerful protest. When we support those who need it – when we need support ourselves – we can move mountains.”

“This is about race but not racial division,” Henderson said, reiterating a point from “Our Black Year.” This is “a talk to reorient us on the power each of us has inside of ourselves to enact change.”

The MLK Lecture was co-sponsored by Emory’s Advancement and Alumni Engagement, Department of African American Studies, Goizueta Business School, Emory Law and The Hightower Fund.

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