Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 170

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.

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Racial Discrimination

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505

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, in the language of his day, he refers to as the “Negro Revolution,” King explains the frustration that African Americans shared regarding the slow pace of change in the United States. The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which prohibited racial segregation in public schools, had offered hope to African Americans. However, in subsequent decisions, the Court had weakened the impact of the Brown decision. In the 1960 presidential election, Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy had promised support for civil rights, but once in office he appeared satisfied with limited gains. King notes that at the same time the federal government backed away from its commitment to civil rights, it positioned itself as a defender of liberty and democracy abroad.

Frustration stemmed from other sources besides the failures of the government officials. During the early 1960’s, the United States experienced an economic boom, from which, for the most part, African Americans received little benefit. Discrimination prevented them from realizing any real gains or new opportunities. Meanwhile, Africans and Asians were achieving newfound political power, ending generations of white...

(The entire section contains 1994 words.)

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