WASHINGTON - Atlanta-based radio talk show host Warren Ballentine and the Washington, D.C.-based National Bankers Association believe reinvesting in Black-owned banks could inspire economic healing and strength in every aspect of the Black community. That's why they have started "The People's Economic Movement."
The Movement was inspired by a plan that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. laid out during his "Mountaintop" speech at Mason Temple in April of 1963.
In his last public message the day before he was assassinated, Dr. King called on Black people in Memphis to support Black banks.
"We've got to strengthen Black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank," he said.
Tri-State Bank, now 65 years old and still in operation, was among the institutions where civil rights demonstrations were planned during that time.
After encouraging people to also support Black insurance companies, Dr. King concluded in his speech, "These are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here." King was killed the next day.
Today, an organization of Black and other racial minority banks and a radio talk show host have now united to take up the mantle amidst an economy that is still causing disparate suffering to African-Americans.
"If we want to change all the drugs in our community, if we want to change all the violence, if we want to change the educational abilities that our next generation will have, it starts with having the capital available to teach the proper things to do to make a difference," said Ballentine during a press conference at the NBA headquarters to announce the new movement.
"If we all come together and just open up accounts - not give your money away, but just open up accounts so that the Banks will have the position to be able to lend of the money to help the community - then people will have accountability because they have ownership and they're tied into it. And once they have an ownership, they're going to treat it so much differently than they're treating it right now," he said.
In a nutshell, the NBA and Ballentine will officially announce "The People's Economic Movement," on August 28, coinciding with the unveiling of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington. Ballentine will encourage people to open accounts in Black banks, which will in turn establish community programs to enrich their customers and neighborhoods.
NBA President Michael Grant sees the self-help movement as a catalyst to the stimulation of "much-needed economic development at our nation's urban core."
He said in a statement, "By depositing our money in minority banks, getting mortgages, small business loans or loans for college tuition from banks in our communities, consumers begin a process of harnessing the economic strength of the masses in a way that creates direct benefits to their communities which are still suffering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression."
Big banks have gotten a bad name during the economic downturn, largely due to their receiving bailout money while record numbers of people lost their homes due to predatory mortgage loans and unemployment. But, Black-owned banks are in a different category.
"Literally, the predatory lending, it wasn't from the small community banks. That was from the big banks...The banks that we're dealing with, the members of the NBA, were responsible and conservative and accurate in what they were doing as far as their lending practices in comparison to other banks," Ballentine said.
Blacks have suffered most in the economic downtown, including unemployment rates that are consistently nearly twice the national average.
The "People's Economic Movement" will bring hope, Grant said during the press conference. "This campaign is allowing us to give folks something to rally around that they can believe in...This is an opportunity for us. We've decided that the NBA can and should play a galvanizing role to pull together elements of our community to start making economic development and finance an issue of importance to our communities."
Ballentine's vision has already been put to the test.
Kim Saunders, president and CEO of the 103-year-old M& Bank in Durham, was applauded by her colleagues at the press conference when she said her bank established more than 60 new accounts in one day as Ballentine used his radio show to encourage people to open accounts during a National Community Reinvestment Day. "In our Charlotte Branch, we had standing room only," she recalled.
She said her bank has a strong relationship with faith-based communities, does hundreds of financial literacy workshops a year, has more than 1,000 new accounts, including 225 youth savings accounts and have garnered more than a million dollars in deposits.
Saunders is now on radio every Friday featuring customers talking about their M& experience in learning about banking and establishing relationships that put them in homes and their own businesses.
Small banks teach people everything from how to write a check, balance a check book or pay their bills, Saunders said. "It's been an amazing campaign...I think this is really what we are called to do."
The "People's Economic Movement" is also expected to benefit community development overall. There are approximately 38 Black-owned banks in America. Because of limited deposits, none of them has a lending capacity of more than $3.5 billion, but, in the past, they have pooled their resources in order to fund major projects.
The Rev. Deforest B. Soaries, Jr., senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Somerset, N.J., underscored the importance of the involvement of churches in the campaign.
"After you come to God, the second thing you do in our church is get out of debt and develop a budget and live within your means and pay yourself first," Soaries said at the press conference. "This is not just the role of the church, but the responsibility of the church. My lifestyle depends on people putting money into the plate, which means that my responsibility is to help them with the money they don't put in the plate."
A long time civil rights and community advocate Soaries said people need an option to institutions that set up in neighborhoods to rob people of their money.
"The unbanked and under-banked are using check cashing joints, rent to own, money orders and pay day lenders," he said.
He also quoted statistics that say one out of five African-Americans doesn’t have a bank account and another 33 percent have bank accounts but don't use them. He calculated this to mean 54 percent of Black people in the U.S. are "unbanked or under-banked".
The NBA - with African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American and Native-American owned banks in 29 cities across the nation - is uniquely positioned to partner with Ballentine to change these conditions, Grant says. Yet, Black banks receive little support from potential customers.
According to an NBA statement, "Economists have estimated that while the African-American community has over one trillion dollars in disposable income a year, it has been estimated that African-American owned banks manage less than 5 percent of the wealth in the communities that they serve."
That's about to change, said Grant, referring to the partnership between M& and Ballentine: "We've got to take this model of success and build on it."