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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 286

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One of the themes of Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King is the answer to the question posed in the title—why the Civil Rights movement cannot wait to fight for equality for blacks in America. The author speaks about why it has become necessary to act to achieve civil rights and why the year 1963 is turning out to be a watershed year in the movement. He writes that the gains of the early Civil Rights movement were not sustained in other communities and mentions the resistance in communities such as Albany, Georgia, where the movement had a rare failure in pushing for integration. The movement has now come to Birmingham, Alabama, where, King writes, "fear and oppression were as thick in its atmosphere as the smog from its factories" (44). King explains why the movement centered on Birmingham, which he refers to as one of the most repressive cities in the segregated South.

Another theme in the book is the explanation of King's methods of nonviolence. He explains his methods and writes that they are not forms of cowardice but forms of heroism. He writes that nonviolence allows people to "transmute hatred into constructive energy" (35). In addition, he explains that nonviolent direct action allows the activist not to attack his or her oppressor but to take on the entire system of segregation and hatred that has created the oppressor. He believes that direct action is necessary to dismantle segregation and writes that "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed" (91). In other words, nonviolent direct action is necessary to dismantle segregation, and the time to take this action, King believes, is 1963.


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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 226

One theme of We Can't Wait is that segregation and racial discrimination hurts all people in US society, including black people and white people, southerners and northerners. King states that while blacks carry the brunt of the pain, whites also suffer. He points out, for example, that in Birmingham, Alabama, rather than integrate the parks, the city shut them all down, depriving whites as well as blacks of the benefits of peaceful outdoor spaces.

As the title indicates, another major theme of the book is the need to address and solve problems of racial injustice now. King notes that one hundred years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation, and racial equality is far from having been achieved. Kicking the can down the road to another day means, he argues, that racial justice never happens. The moment is now because the momentum has built to a critical point. It can't be allowed to dissipate, or African Americans will never get anywhere.

Another theme King stresses strongly is the importance of completely non-violent protest. He calls any violence “racial suicide,” implicitly condemning black leaders like Malcolm X who call for matching white violence with black violence, believing this to be the only thing white people understand. King insists that nonviolence gives the civil rights movement a moral advantage, binds people together in solidarity, and builds courage and self-esteem.


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