Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King, Jr.


Five stars, read in January 2017.

If you want a perfect example of why this book is (STILL) necessary, consider this: It’s a book about the same time period, the same issues, as To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee—the book nearly every person in the United States had to read in school. While I have no way of knowing how many schools have taught Why We Can’t Wait, even if it’s a lot, there’s no way it comes close—To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the only work besides Shakespeare that almost every student will have encountered sometime in their schooling. For comparison, it has over three million ratings on Goodreads, with almost 70,000 reviews; Why We Can’t Wait has 3910 ratings, and 217 reviews.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book, and King even mentions it in here (the novel came out just three-ish years before he wrote this book). But it is fiction, and written by a white person. Why We Can’t Wait is a nonfiction account of real, recent history, written by the most well-known leader of the Civil Rights Movement—and a black man. It’s less than half the length of To Kill a Mockingbird, if you compare the mass market paperback editions. And it’s as gripping as any novel—so much so that I was genuinely upset every time I had to put it down. Why do you suppose one book is completely ubiquitous in the United States, and the other read only by those who specifically seek it out? It’s an interesting question to consider.

It is also deeply upsetting that this book is still so incredibly relevant. Obviously, many great strides have been made since 1964, thanks to King and the others who fought so hard for them. That’s actually one of my favorites of the points he makes in the book: that change only happens because people make it. He shares an excerpt from a letter he received, saying the things people always say about being “patient,” how change takes time, and giving the example that “it has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” For which he had this response:

Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will . . . Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.

Defenders of the status quo are always so quick to protest that the time isn’t right, and King points out the fairly obvious fact that the time is never right for those who benefit from the status quo.

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privilege voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

The thing that struck me the most about this book was how vividly it brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to life. I have always (in my adulthood) felt frustrated by the shallowness of the education I received about the civil rights movement. We watched the speech in school, we heard the “I have a dream.” But it never really meant much. It was something that happened in the past, and King was a person who said a couple specific phrases we still repeat a few times a year in January and February. But there was no sense of the passion, the pain, the heart of the movement. There was nothing that made him seem like a real person. The edition I read includes an afterword by Jesse Jackson, and he makes the same point about why this book is so important.

Everyone who had the privilege of knowing Dr. King in his all-too-brief thirty-nine-year life was changed by him . . . But we must remember that millions of Americans have been born in the years since he died. They have no memory whatsoever of the living, breathing Dr. King. For many of them, their mental image of Dr. King is confined to grainy black-and-white footage of Dr. King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, saying, “I have a dream.” For many, even some who lived through the 1960s, thoughts turn to Dr. King only once a year when they are reminded of him by a day off of school or work and a story on the evening news. For many, Dr. King has become a two-dimensional figure.

The thing is, Martin Luther King said so many things besides “I have a dream.” In fact, if you read this book, at one point or another he addresses probably every single argument we still hear about these issues.

He talks about tokenism:

Those who argue in favor of tokenism point out that we must begin somewhere; that it is unwise to spurn any breakthrough, no matter how limited . . . There is a critical distinction, however, between a modest start and tokenism. The tokenism Negroes condemn is recognizable because it is an end in itself. Its purpose is not to begin a process, but instead to end the process of protest and pressure. It is a hypocritical gesture, not a constructive first step . . .

If he is still saying, “Not enough,” it is because he does not feel that he should be expected to be grateful for the halting and inadequate attempts of his society to catch up with the basic rights he ought to have inherited automatically, centuries ago, by virtue of his membership in the human family and his American birthright.

He talks about affirmative action, not using that phrase, but addressing the problem to which affirmative action has been an attempted (and partial, and insufficient) solution:

Among the many vital jobs to be done, the nation must not only radically readjust its attitude toward the Negro in the compelling present, but must incorporate in its planning some compensatory consideration for the handicaps he has inherited from the past. It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years. How then can he be absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we do not do something special for him now, in order to balance the equation and equip him to compete on a just and equal basis? . . . For it is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.

Few people consider the fact that, in addition to being enslaved for two centuries, the Negro was, during all those years, robbed of the wages of his toil. No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in American down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages.

He talks about the frustration of living in the United States, the one place in the world that makes the ultimate claim to equality and freedom, but in reality is actually behind other places:

Throughout the upheavals of cold-war politics, Negroes had seen their government go to the brink of nuclear conflict more than once. The justification for risking the annihilation of the human race was always expressed in terms of America’s willingness to go to any lengths to preserve freedom . . . There is a certain bitter irony in the picture of his country championing freedom in foreign lands and failing to ensure that freedom to twenty million of its own . . .

The Negro saw black statesmen voting on vital issues in the United Nations—and knew that in many cities of his own land he was not permitted to take that significant walk to the ballot box. He saw black kings and potentates ruling from palaces—and knew he had been condemned to move from small ghettos to larger ones. Witnessing the drama of Negro progress elsewhere in the world, witnessing a level of conspicuous consumption at home exceeding anything in our history, it was natural that by 1963 Negroes would rise with resolution and demand a share of governing power, and living conditions measured by American standards rather than by the standards of colonial impoverishment.

He talks about how unfair, and how deliberately obstructive it is, to demand that each individual issue be solved through a lawsuit rather than federal action:

It is not generally realized that the burden of court decision, such as the Supreme Court decision on school desegregation, places the responsibility on the individual Negro who is compelled to bring a suit in order to obtain his rights. In effect, the most impoverished Americans, facing powerfully equipped adversaries, are required to finance and conduct complex litigation that may involve tens of thousands of dollars. To have shaped remedies in this form for existing inequities in our national life was in itself a concession to segregationists [emphasis mine]. The unsound consequences of this procedure are hampering progress to this day. A solution can only be achieved if the government assumes the responsibility for all legal proceedings, facing the reality that the poor and the unemployed already fight an unequal daily struggle to stay alive. To be forced to accumulate resources for legal actions imposes intolerable hardships on the already overburdened.

He mentions the fucking bootstrap argument, which is possibly the one that pisses me off the most:

The average Negro is born into want and deprivation. His struggle to escape his circumstances is hindered by color discrimination. He is deprived of normal education and normal social and economic opportunities. When he seeks opportunity, he is told, in effect, to lift himself by his own bootstraps, advice which does not take into account the fact that he is barefoot.

As Jesse Jackson mentions in his afterword, that first statement is not as accurate fifty years later (again, thanks to the work King and the others did)—but the issue does still exist at its core. I’m remembering Condoleezza Rice’s speech at the Republican National Convention in 2012, where she asked if our idea of the American dream was really fulfilled “when I can look at your zip code and tell whether you are going to get a good education.”

Having recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, in which he questions—poignantly and thoughtfully—the emphasis we place on the nonviolence of the movement (I quoted that part of his book here, if you’d like to read it), it was enlightening to hear it explained by King himself. Coates makes very important points about the issue, and knowing how central Christianity was to King’s movement, I expected to find some of the explanation lacking. But at least one point in particular really stood out to me:

To the Negro in 1963, as to Atticus Finch, it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice . . . [This] had the marvelous effect of changing the face of the enemy. The enemy the Negro faced became not the individual who had oppressed him but the evil system which permitted that individual to do so.

Put in those terms, it seems clear that nonviolence was a special tool that allowed them to accomplish things they may not have otherwise been able to accomplish. But I don’t think Coates necessarily has an issue with nonviolence as the tactic they chose to use; I think his point is about our focus on it now, and how even in our respect for their accomplishments, we might be perpetuating the ideas and problems they fought against.

I do remember studying the Letter from Birmingham Jail in high school, but I don’t know how much focus was placed on it, and if I can say that one section of this book is more important than the others, this would be it. One thing I didn’t remember is that the letter was written to white clergymen who had criticized the movement, not King’s fellow black clergymen—though there were plenty who disagreed on different aspects of the movement. The fact that it is written specifically to white people makes me want to just quote the entire thing everywhere on the internet and in real life, because it is so perfect, and it’s so frustrating that even Martin Luther King, Jr. can’t get this shit through people’s heads.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative . . .

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue . . . We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive . . .

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for “a more convenient season” [emphasis mine]. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will . . .

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?

Yes—it is exactly like that. And we have a phrase for it now: blaming the victim. In 1963 white people literally blamed black people for being beaten and imprisoned by white police officers.

Certainly Birmingham had its white moderates who disapproved of Bull Connor’s tactics. Certainly Birmingham had its decent white citizens who privately deplored the maltreatment of Negroes. But they remained publicly silent. It was a silence born of fear—fear of social, political, and economic reprisals. The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people.

And here we still are.

The other thing I found so compelling was the breadth of King’s attention, and the (admittedly partial) intersectionality of his beliefs. He is aware, in the first place, that American racism did not begin with slavery.

For too long the depth of racism in American life has been underestimated . . . Yet to focus on the Negro alone as the “inferior race” of American myth is to miss the broader dimensions of the evil. Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society . . . We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it [emphasis mine]. Our children are still taught to respect the violence which reduced a red-skinned people of an earlier culture into a few fragmented groups herded into impoverished reservations . . . It was upon this massive base of racism that the prejudice toward the nonwhite was readily built, and found rapid growth. This long-standing racist ideology has corrupted and diminished our democratic ideals. It is this tangled web of prejudice from which many Americans now seek to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness.

And he discusses the ways that labor unions and the white poor are all tied up in the same struggle.

Many poor whites, however, were the derivative victims of slavery. As long as labor was cheapened by the involuntary servitude of the black man, the freedom of white labor, especially in the South, was little more than a myth. It was free only to bargain from the depressed base imposed by slavery upon the whole labor market. Nor did this derivative bondage end when formal slavery gave way to the de facto slavery of discrimination. To this day the white poor also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty if not color . . . It corrupts their lives, frustrates their opportunities and withers their education. In one sense it is more evil for them, because it has confused so many by prejudice that they have supported their own oppressors.

His idea here was to create a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, based on the GI Bill of Rights, which would help everyone who had been held down by the institution of slavery—including white people. Obviously this never happened. (And can you imagine the Republican response if someone were insane enough to suggest it now?)

Reading this book was both inspiring and depressing, for fairly obvious reasons. I just can’t imagine what King would say if he were here to see the Age of Trump, although I wish we had that chance. But then again, maybe we do know at least part of what he would say.

Today Birmingham is by no means miraculously desegregated. There is still resistance and violence. The last-ditch struggle of a segregationist governor still soils the pages of current events and it is still necessary for a harried president to invoke his highest powers so that a Negro child may go to school with a white child in Birmingham. But these factors only serve to emphasize the truth that even the segregationists know: The system to which they have been committed lies on its deathbed. The only imponderable is the question of how costly they will make the funeral.

Clearly, we have chosen as expensive as humanly possible.

I don’t like to attempt those lists of Books EVERYONE MUST READ, because I get passionate about everything and can’t narrow it down. But if I did create one, this book would be near the top. As Eric Foner said in a MOOC I took from Columbia a couple years ago, these people—the abolitionists, the suffragists, and the civil rights demonstrators—they are the ones who actually made the United States a free country (to the extent that it is one). These are the actual heroes of our history. Even if the book weren’t so relevant today, it’s one of the most important parts of the history of the United States. But the fact is that it is still relevant, and I can’t help believing that we could move so much further than we have if everyone would read this book.


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