Why We Can’t Wait Summary

Martin Luther King Jr.

Why We Can’t Wait

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Why We Can’t Wait Summary

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Why We Cant Wait is a 1964 nonfiction book by Martin Luther King Jr. that serves as the famous protest leader and activist’s call to action in the fight against racial segregation in the American South. Starting with his iconic Letter from Birmingham Jail and continuing into a broader description of how he envisions the movement to develop and the steps that need to be taken, Why We Cant Wait centers primarily around the theme of nonviolent resistance. This form of protest served as the key to King’s success, allowing him to win the hearts and minds of sympathetic whites while unapologetically demanding the dignity afforded to all men.

The book is divided into four segments, starting with a reprinting of his famous letter written from a jail in Birmingham where he was held for his role in the 1963 Birmingham Campaign and was mistreated by the local authorities. He states that what he calls the “Negro Revolution” generated quietly before bursting on the scene in 1963, and is destined to grow in strength and numbers because three hundred years of mistreatment cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.

In the first main section, “Why 1963?”, King explores why this year was the year that his movement gained strength and became a national event. There were many factors that King attributes the rise to, including the slow integration of schools after Brown vs. Board of Education, a growing lack of confidence in politicians and government after the Kennedy administration failed to deliver on the Civil Rights act and on support for black voting rights in the south, the growing anti-colonization movement in Africa and its psychological impact on oppressed black Americans, the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation making clear to black people how far they still had to go, the ongoing poverty in the black community, and the rise of nonviolent direct action both in the US and abroad as a means for social change.

The second section, “Nonviolent Resistance,” delves into why nonviolent resistance is so effective. One of its main strengths involves changing the function of jails in society. By clogging the jails with protesters who chose to willingly subject themselves to arrest, the threat of arrest and jail as a punishment. He criticizes tokenism, or mistaking the elevation of one member of a group to a position of power, as a weak substitute for actual equality. However, he does urge people to remember that progress may be slow and that every step in the process is a victory. He criticizes other African-American movements such as those of Booker T. Washington, WEB Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey as not bringing the change they promised.

The third segment, “Birmingham”, focuses specifically on the campaign in Birmingham and gives an unflinching look at life for black people in the city under Sheriff Bull Connor. He describes the lack of basic rights black people in the city have, and the ongoing escalating campaign of protests, including his arrest, a later assassination attempt on him in the wake of a negotiated agreement with the city, and the attempted expulsion of thousands of black students by the Birmingham Board of Education, which was later overruled by a federal judge. Despite the hardships they endured, King portrays Birmingham as a critical victory.

The final segment, “Ongoing Revolution,” is King’s call for continued action both in Birmingham and elsewhere. He describes their movement as the start of a revolutionary army and warns against complacency. He also calls for unity among oppressed people in America, calling for alliance with Native Americans and saying that he believes the summer of 1963 has made most white Americans receptive to his ideas. The conclusion explains the title of the book, stating that black people can no longer simply move towards freedom, but must assert it. He expresses hope that poor whites and organized labor will join with him, and states that the next step for the movement may be to work with the new president, Lyndon Johnson. He hopes that the civil rights movement, if it succeeds, may spread non-violence worldwide and end the nuclear arms race.

Why We Can’t Wait is considered one of the most significant political non-fiction books ever written, and was ranked at No. 78 on Modern Library’s list of the 100 best nonfiction books written in English. King’s words have been used by future leaders, including President Barack Obama, to make the case that we can’t wait to take action. Before his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote six non-fiction political books focusing on his philosophy and calls to political action. Since his death, additional writings of his have been compiled into five additional works, including an Autobiography edited by Claybourne Carson. He remains one of the foremost political figures and African-American voices in American history.