By the time you read this, it will at least be the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2024. But, I’m writing it on the day we set aside to honor the giant of civil rights and social justice. Not only social justice, because that would wildly undersell his priorities, but also educational justice, economic justice, and more.

Sitting inside a jail in 1963 were Dr. King and Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who were arrested in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama for leading protests, peaceful protests I might add, against segregation.

Dr. King spent 8 days in jail before being bailed out, and during that time of just over a week, he wrote the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ which is still famous today. It includes lines like “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”, and “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”.

These are lines that many, when honoring Dr. King remind us of, and they’re even quoted by those who don’t even know he’s responsible for them.

Now, this letter, the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, wasn’t addressed to the public he was leading or calling to action, but to other men of the clergy, men who were Reverends and ministers of faith who you might think would be standing behind him, even though they were white – but they were instead critical of his methods, suggesting he should fight for justice by using the law, not civil disobedience. Mind you, it was the laws at the time that were the tools of those who oppressed us.

Note: It’s important to say that many people who praise Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, and many of those who sobbed when he died, were the very ones who stood staunchly against him and made it harder for him when he was alive, but I digress.

Now, having started this essay this way, you may think I’m going to spend the rest of our time together reminding us of the virtues of the civil rights movement by way of Dr. King’s activities. But, I’m going to honor the work another way. I’ll do it by telling you the story, briefly, or Arthur George Gaston, better known as A.G. Gaston., and in parallel, make a case for entrepreneurship and wealth generation and accumulation.

Now, some of you know, because you’re avid here, that I was once a radio DJ. I spent about 12 years on the radio as a top-rated host in my hometown of Toledo, OH, and in Detroit also, on several stations. I remember receiving a marketing lesson from one of my Program Directors on how to engage an audience on the radio, and I think the rule still applies here, as it’s a key lesson in storytelling and captivation. He said these simple lines that go: “Tell them what you’re going to do; tell them what you’re doing; then, tell them what you did.”

These keys allow you to prepare an audience for a good time, which should build their excitement and allow them time to get in the right frame of mind to receive what you’re about to deliver. Then, while they’re engaged in the experience, when you tell them what you’re doing, you bring awareness to the quality being presented or guide them to clues they might be missing which would enhance the experience while it’s happening. And in closing, tell them what you did. This puts a seal on what they should have taken away from the journey, helps them appropriately appreciate what they just received, and bakes it into their medium to long-term memory.

So, I’m going to do that for you today.

First, I’m going to tell you what I’m about to do, then, I’ll do it, and close this episode out with key learnings and encouragement, based on our discussion.

What I’m going to talk about today is the power of riches, how you use finances to make an impact on the things you care about, and briefly, how one Black entrepreneur achieved his financial success and then used it to advance civil rights.

When we think of getting money, too many of us give an outsized weight to the selfish reasons for accumulation. I’ll first say there is no problem with driving something better, living in a higher quality home, or eating better foods and affording to do so. What I mean, more specifically is the question we’ve heard before “Would you even know what to do with a million dollars if you had it?”. Now, I know everyone reading raised their hands like, ‘I definitely know what to do with a million dollars!’ And, you’re right – I’m talking about the other readers who also raised their hands, you’re good! But, trust me, they don’t know what to do with it, and I’m trying to help them because the things they thought of at that moment, of all the things they wanted to do, were only about how they were going to upgrade their lives.

But what too many of us don’t understand about wealth, true wealth, is that it doesn’t flow towards the selfish. No matter how many times you see someone on IG with a money phone, or how many Prada bags you see that Real Housewife of Wherever with. Wealth flows toward places where it can grow, so let’s not ever get that confused. And that is, again, not to say you can’t have nice things. You can do well while doing well, and that is the point.

So, for 2 seconds, I’ll go in and say this if you’ll follow me: cash, dollars, and mula are a proxy. We use this paper we hold so dear simply to make exchanges. Other than that, a US dollar is merely 25% linen and 75% cotton mixed up in a special blend. The Japanese yen is oriental paperbush and abaca pulp. Dollars are a proxy for power – which means they stand in, allowing us to trade this for that more easily than otherwise. And, if dollars are simply proxies for power, then what is power? What are we trading this linen and cotton blend in our wallets for? We trade it to realize the impact we want to make in the world or a change we want to see. Whether that change is the ownership of the title to a car from being in the dealership’s hands to mine or an impact on the quality of education our kids have access to.

Now, whether or not you agree with the impact a wealthy person is making is beside the point. The point is that power needs to be exercised for it to be maintained and grown.

A.G. Gaston was a wealthy Black man who was born in 1892 and died in 1996 at 103 years old. Mr. Gaston understood his riches had a responsibility, and tried to balance his commitment to business with his loyalty to the Black community.

He was a minor at the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company when he got the idea for his first company, a burial society. This was effectively a funeral insurance organization to ensure that when Black people died they could have dignity in burial. The story goes that he’d charge 25 cents each week to all the members of the society, and before he actually banked enough to cover anyone’s funeral expenses, having just $10 set aside, a member died. This resulted in a $100 bill that he couldn’t meet.

But, he was undeterred and made payment arrangements with the funeral home. The person got their respectful service, and Gaston got a nod of confidence from the minister who officiated, saying ‘’From now on everyone in this town is gonna pay for this society because Gaston’s got a vision’. And that’s how his fortune started.

He went on to own several funeral homes, an insurance company, a savings and loan bank, a business college, and even a motel, the Gaston motel.

Understanding the power of his dollars, he went to the bank where he held his money and told them if they didn’t remove segregated water fountains in the lobby, he’d move his millions elsewhere.

That’s power.

Arthur George Gaston would be the man who’d bail out Dr. King when he was arrested in that jail in Birmingham, allowing him the opportunity to get back to the work of the people. Dr. King might have remained in jail for however long further, had this Black entrepreneur, this Black millionaire, not intervened with his checkbook.

This was a man who understood that, while he could drive a Cadillac Eldorado, which he did back then, he also could provide dignified accommodations for traveling civil rights leaders in his hotel and other Black people who otherwise would be turned away by other hotel providers. He had the power to donate money to the legal team of Autherine Lucy, an African American who filed a lawsuit to integrate the graduate school at the University of Alabama. He had the power to provide financial assistance to Tuskegee activists who were forced out of their homes because they challenged voting discrimination.

Justice with no economics is not justice at all. And having means but no aim to build your community serves no one.

So, what am I hoping you take from the story of Arthur George Gaston? He wasn’t loud about his moves and didn’t need to be. His superpower was that he knew his power, knew how to grow it, and knew how to use it to make the changes he wanted to see in the world.

His ‘Rules for Success’ were printed by the Birmingham News in 1996, and my favorite was this:
“Find a need and fill it. Successful businesses are founded on the needs of people.”

What need can you fill in your community or in the world? We need you to be successful. We need you to fill a void in the marketplace, or to serve up better options than those currently available.

Today, people like myself view A.G. Gaston as an inspiration – an entrepreneur who built companies not just for personal reward, but because we know that finding success allows us to create opportunities.

He also said ‘Don’t get too big-headed with little fellows. That’s where the money is.’ And, I love that quote because I translate it to mean building for the overlooked subgroups. Riches are in the niches. Consider those groups of people that are considered minorities today, whether you’re building for the Black community today, or other groups of people, like people who were into anime 10 years ago – those groups either have or are projected to grow over time. So when you serve them well while they’re small and easier to gain traction in, you set up yourself for long-term success.

And in honor of Dr. King, when you build your wealth – AS you build your wealth, you become not only a person who makes a difference for Black issues, amplifying change with your capital, you also become a representation of all the great things that become possible when Black people have money.

Header photo from al.com