Like many other people, I suspect, I only knew about Martin Luther King, Jr. through four terms: civil rights; “I Have A Dream;” his assassination; and the holiday that bears his name. His legacy remains immense in the American consciousness, almost certainly via some combination of these factors.
Last year, though, as our family prepared to move into our current house, I stumbled upon a book that the previous owners had left behind. I kept it on my shelf for several months, only picking it up seriously just a week or so ago – and finishing it earlier today.
Now I think it’s time to write something about it.
What Du Bois‘ The Souls of Black Folk was to its (minority elite) black audience in the early twentieth century, so King’s Why We Can’t Wait (1964) was – or should have been – to the larger American public sixty years later. Both have become essential sociological documents of America’s troubled racial past and present, and each strives to chronicle the roots of injustice against black Americans in an effort to effect positive social change. In King’s case, time and the passage of history afforded him a great deal more material to work with in strengthening his argument.
Most of Why We Can’t Wait is devoted to tracing the history of King’s Birmingham campaign, which was executed in the spring of 1963 but was planned meticulously for many months. It recounts the efforts of key figures, including Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and hundreds of volunteers young and old, to stage non-violent demonstrations and sit-ins designed to cripple the local economy during Easter shopping season. The goal of the campaign was to transform, in stages, “a community in which human rights had been trampled for so long that fear and oppression were as thick in its atmosphere as the smog from its factories.” But the movement’s primary antagonist, city commissioner Eugene “Bull” O’Connor, waged a brutal retaliatory campaign to uphold Birmingham’s segregation policies. The protracted struggle drew international attention, and after state and national intervention Connor was expelled from his post, paving the way for more widespread change throughout the South.
King chronicles this history in remarkable yet concise detail, writing in a style that bears the influence of preceding black literary figures. The slave narratives in particular provide a model for his rhetoric, and Du Bois is a direct literary father: King pays special tribute to the “freedom songs,” including the “sorrow songs” sung by generations of black slaves, because “we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome, Black and white together, we shall overcome someday.'”
But the most powerful aspect of Why We Can’t Wait, for me, lies in the scope of King’s examples to illustrate why the US could no longer maintain segregation at all levels of society. We celebrate his rhetoric in “I Have A Dream” to almost no end, but we should be doing the same for his written work as well. King draws on almost any and every historical context possible – Biblical roots; Christian uprising against the Romans; the works of Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, and John Bunyan; the anti-colonial roots of the American Revolution; Gandhi and non-violent resistance against British rule in India; and the more contemporary independence movements of African nations in the latter half of the 20th century – to illustrate the injustices of racial segregation and race divisions. Here’s a quote from the letter King wrote in April 1963, when he had spent time in jail, to eight of his fellow clergymen in Alabama:
[T]hough I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”…Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan…And Abraham Lincoln…And Thomas Jefferson…So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
Yet King doesn’t limit (is that really the appropriate word?) himself to the broad sweep of human history, black and white, for his argument. Instead, he incorporates the social realities that his fellow black citizens faced in Birmingham and elsewhere, using the black experience to draw metaphors with sharp, visible lines. When he describes, for example, the breakthrough that “nonviolent direct action” had wrought in Birmingham – through the now-famous lunch counter sit-ins, among other actions – he invokes labor imagery to judge the effect: “Nonviolence had passed the test of its steel in the fires of turmoil. The united power of southern segregation was the hammer. Birmingham was the anvil.” Even more powerful is his catalog of the everyday black experience in his 1963 letter:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim…when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky…when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year old son who is asking, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’…when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
From hammer to anvil, Luther to Lincoln, fathers to Funtown, brothers to Birmingham, daughters and a “degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’,” King drives home the brutalities of racial injustice at every level: social, spiritual, psychological, geographical, and real. The passage and letter form the book’s thematic center and provide a platform for King to make his final argument for legislation that would recognize black Americans as fully integrated citizens. Some, but not all, of these provisions were incorporated into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There are many reasons to read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s book Why We Can’t Wait. The least important reason is that it’s short – the copy I just finished (a 2000 edition) totaled only 154 pages in length, 144 if you exclude the Afterword written by Rev. Jesse Jackson for the new millennium. A slightly more important reason is King’s style in and of itself, which ranks among the best any American writer has ever produced. Even more important is its purpose: to chronicle the history of the civil rights movement as it occurred in Birmingham, Alabama between 1954 and 1963, and to provide a personal reflection (from one of its greatest members) on black consciousness in America.Yet I think the most important reason to read Why We Can’t Wait lies in the title itself – because even fifty years after the book’s publication, the constructive impatience that King injects into his argument is sorely missing from the American consciousness that followed in his wake.
It’s commendable that we have, to borrow a weary phrase, “come a long way since then.” But that doesn’t mean we have to wait for the next steps. In fact, we shouldn’t have to wait at all.