Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait was written in 1963 and published in early 1964. The Civil Rights movement in the United States had achieved several notable successes in the previous months, including President John F. Kennedy’s support for a civil rights bill and the March on Washington, during which King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. However, King and his supporters had received criticism for their efforts, with some observers charging that they expected too much, while more militant activists declared that they asked for too little. Moreover, the civil rights legislation was stalled in Congress. Why We Can’t Wait, then, was a book of its time, in which King presents historical examples and ethical arguments to explain the Civil Rights movement and to exhort supporters to continue in their efforts at a crucial juncture in U.S. history. It has also stood the test of time as the articulation of the concept of nonviolent resistance and its necessity in combatting social injustice.
King opens the book with a brief introduction that compares the lives of two black children, a boy living in Harlem, New York, and a girl living in Birmingham, Alabama. Both children endure poverty and a world of limited opportunity. By drawing this comparison, King asserts that racial discrimination and its damaging affect on African Americans is a national problem, not one confined to the South. Although discrimination is not as overt in the North, King notes, it is nonetheless as crippling and unjust as the segregation practiced in the South. Later in the work, King asserts that racial discrimination is also damaging to whites. Using Birmingham as an example, King illustrates the ways in which segregation has diminished the quality of life for the white community. Refusing to abide by a court order to integrate parks, for example, the city instead closed them; the baseball team disbanded rather than accept black players; and at least one touring symphony orchestra refused to visit Birmingham because it would not perform before segregated audiences. Although black Americans bore the most onerous burdens of racism, King makes it clear that all Americans suffer when injustice is allowed to prevail.
Despite the opening image of despair, the introduction ends on a positive note, with the boy and girl preparing to take the first steps necessary to improve their lives. King then explores the motivations behind their resolve. In examining the causes of what,...
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Having identified and justified the causes of dissatisfaction, King proceeds to detail the means for carrying out this revolution. Although he praises the strategy of pursuing legal victories that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had conducted for decades, he argues that this strategy is slow and often results in only token victories. On the other hand, he condemns those who call for violent revolution, claiming that bloodshed will result only in “racial suicide” as whites retaliate with greater violence. King advocates nonviolence as the only alternative to these positions. He marshals several arguments in support of nonviolence as an effective means of achieving a civil rights revolution.
King points to the economic boycotts during the American Revolution and to Mohandas K. Gandhi’s leadership against British colonial rule in India as examples of nonviolence that have proven effective in the past. However, historical evidence does not explain the reasons for the success of nonviolent protest. Nonviolence works because it possesses a moral authority that sheer physical strength and brutality lack. King believes that although Americans retain a frontier mentality that demands response and retribution, they will recognize the superiority of the moral position that those who practice nonviolence hold.
King maintains that nonviolence will be especially effective in securing civil rights for African Americans because it will bring to light the unjust and brutal behaviors practiced by the whites opposed to integration. For centuries, blacks have lived in fear of violence perpetrated at night or in some isolated jail cell. By bringing the beatings into the streets before news cameras and newspaper reporters, nonviolent protesters will gain the support of Americans throughout the nation who are horrified by the atrocities they witness on their televisions.
Nonviolence also brings various benefits to the community and the individual. King claims that a nonviolent “army” is an egalitarian force. Each member of this army, regardless of wealth or social status, faces the same consequences, the same risk of a beating or imprisonment. Thus, nonviolence strengthens bonds within the community. In addition, nonviolence requires a level of courage and self-discipline that contributes to an individual’s self-esteem. Far from being an act of cowardice, as some critics implied, nonviolence demands a brave heart. It serves as a constructive channel for feelings of anger and frustration.
The heart of Why We Can’t Wait is the chapter entitled “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” which King wrote while incarcerated for violating a court injunction against protesting. Addressing his letter to eight clergymen who had counseled moderation during the crisis in Birmingham, King defends his actions and explains why nonviolent direct action is appropriate. Moderation, King informs his critics, is satisfied with a negative peace. However, the absence of conflict does not signify the presence of justice. King seeks a positive peace, one in which all people receive the respect due them as human beings. The nonviolent protests raise tensions in the community until a sense of crisis prevails, creating situations that at first glance seem distant from peace. Far from being an unfortunate side effect of the protests, crisis is necessary because it creates the need for a solution. Negotiations will ensue, and individuals will seek justice in their society. Thus, rather than replacing the process of legal battles that the NAACP had called for, nonviolent direct action creates the circumstances that allow for that strategy to take place.
In their criticism of King, the eight clergymen had pointed out that King broke the law when he led protesters through the streets of Birmingham. How can he speak of justice, how can he look to the courts and the government for assistance, when he is willing to ignore the law to achieve his goals? King...
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King concludes his work with thoughts regarding the completion of the task at hand. When will the job be finished? Revising the laws in accord with the higher standards of justice that King has outlined is only the first step toward equality. Merely repealing the segregation acts is not enough, because the historical legacy of racism and discrimination will remain as a burden to African Americans. The passage of time has allowed evil to do its work; society must now offer remedies for the damage that has been done. King rejects compensation as atonement; rather, he views it as a corrective that will allow African Americans to assume their rightful place as equals in society, possessing the same opportunities as their fellow citizens. King again offers historical evidence to support his argument, using the GI Bill of Rights and the Marshall Plan as domestic and international examples of the United States’ willingness to assist the disadvantaged. In keeping with his contention that racism has also injured whites, he advocates economic assistance to whites who suffered as racist policies depressed the southern economy.
In closing, King claims that the Civil Rights movement will bring a healing to the United States. King speaks of a sense of unity and brotherhood that will pervade the nation. Perhaps more important in his estimation is the change that nonviolence will bring to people across the globe. The successful use of nonviolence in the United States will prompt others to employ it as a strategy for ending discrimination and abuse. King hopes that a new adherence to the doctrine of nonviolence will bring an end to all violence and lead to an era of peace.
King published six books and several articles during his lifetime. However, his impact on American life stemmed largely from his prominence as a public figure and his powerful oratory. He is remembered more for his speeches—especially the “I Have a Dream” speech that he delivered in August, 1963—than for his writings. The only exception is the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” Largely ignored when it was first written, the letter was reprinted in several national magazines after the Birmingham campaign received national attention. Nonetheless, Why We Can’t Wait serves as a useful introduction to King’s thought.
Ansbro, John J. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982. This study of King’s intellectual and spiritual development is based on extensive primary material from King’s student days as well as his later writings. Ansbro focuses on the pivotal role of nonviolence based on agape in King’s social theology. The work’s thematic organization is complex.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988. This Pulitzer Prize-winning work offers the most comprehensive account of King’s early career.
Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998. The second volume in Branch’s history of King and the civil rights era, this work contains a wealth of detail that is at times overwhelming.
Fairclough, Adam. Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. This slim volume serves as a superb introduction to students interested in King’s life and impact.
Frady, Marshall. Martin Luther King, Jr.. New York: Viking, 2002. A relatively brief biography of King that concentrates on the civil rights leader’s personality within the context of his turbulent...
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