Why We Can’t Wait


Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Why We Can’t Wait Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Why We Can’t Wait. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the most iconic and influential leaders in the American civil rights movement. Born in Atlanta to a middle-class family and raised near Atlanta’s “Black Wall Street,” King’s father and grandfather before him were Baptist preachers. Even though King was part of a comfortable and tight-knit community, he grew up amid the injustices of segregation. Before entering Morehouse College as an undergraduate, King spent time in the North, where he was first exposed to integrated churches and restaurants. Returning home to complete his studies in the South, King graduated from college in 1948 and entered the ministry. He attended a seminary in Pennsylvania and completed his doctorate at Boston University. In Boston, King met and married Coretta Scott, and the two of them returned to Scott’s native Alabama to start a family. In 1955, King—a pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery—was chosen to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Having studied nonviolent resistance during his time in the seminary, King led his fellow Alabamians in acts of civil disobedience that eventually led to the desegregation of the city’s bus system. Following the success of the boycotts, King became a renowned and respected civil rights leader. As a result of the sit-ins he organized in Atlanta and Birmingham, he was arrested multiple times. Still, King always preached nonviolence to those who looked to him as an example of how to fight racism. Following his release from the Birmingham jail and—later—his historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his direct influence on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King continued to lead nonviolent demonstrations, such as the march from Selma to Montgomery—but as progress stalled, radical factions of the civil rights and Black Power movements began to doubt the use of nonviolence. King himself admitted to mounting frustrations with going to jail repeatedly and “living every day under the threat of death.” In 1968, on a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, King was assassinated on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel.
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Historical Context of Why We Can’t Wait

Why We Can’t Wait provides an account of the campaign for desegregation and racial equality that took place in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. To contextualize the movement, Dr. King notes several important historical events, including the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Supreme Court decision to outlaw school segregation in 1954, and the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and ’56. First, he calls attention to the fact that, although the Emancipation Proclamation—which technically freed all enslaved Black people in the country—was signed in 1863, Black Americans still didn’t enjoy real freedom 100 years later, largely because Jim Crow laws in the South had enforced segregation and ensured the continuation of systemic racism and discrimination. Next, Dr. King points to the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling on segregation as an example of yet another seemingly monumental act that, in reality, failed to bring about true change, since the Supreme Court also passed the Pupil Placement Law, which gave states the power to decide who could attend which schools based on “subjective” concerns—essentially guaranteeing that southern states could easily maintain school segregation. Lastly, Dr. King references the bus boycott that took place in Montgomery, Alabama after Rosa Parks courageously refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. As one of the leaders who helped organize the ensuing boycott, Dr. King sees the campaign in Montgomery as a precursor to the direct-action campaign that took place six years later in Birmingham— in other words, it provided an important opportunity for civil rights leaders to hone tactics of nonviolent protest and demonstration that would ultimately become invaluable to the civil rights movement as a whole.

Other Books Related to Why We Can’t Wait

Because it provides insight into the harmful effects of racism and the Black community’s fight for true freedom in the United States, Why We Can’t Wait has a lot in common with James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Both books were published in the early 1960s and address what it’s like to experience racism. They also explore how the country should proceed in its struggle for equality. In addition, Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is also relevant to any discussion of Why We Can’t Wait, especially since the speech touches on the same themes of unity and hopefulness that the book sets forth (he also delivered the speech in the summer of 1963, which is the period Why We Can’t Wait focuses on). Furthermore, novels like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Richard Wright’s Native Son are also important works that deal with the Black American experience in the mid-20th century. For another perspective on the push for racial equality, The Autobiography of Malcolm X details a more militant and uncompromising approach to the country’s problem with racism.
Key Facts about Why We Can’t Wait
  • Full Title: Why We Can’t Wait
  • When Written: The early 1960s
  • When Published: 1964
  • Literary Period: 20th-century Black American Nonfiction
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Social Commentary 
  • Setting: Birmingham, Alabama in the summer of 1963
  • Climax: Overwhelmed by the scale and persistence of the direct-action campaign for desegregation, Birmingham’s white business leaders agree to negotiate with Dr. King and other activists in the civil rights movement.
  • Antagonist: Racism and white complacency

Extra Credit for Why We Can’t Wait

Letter From Birmingham Jail. The idea for Why We Can’t Wait emerged from “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which Dr. King wrote in a cell in Birmingham after being arrested for civil disobedience in 1963. The open letter was so widely disseminated that it attracted the attention of the publishing world, at which point Dr. King was asked to write an entire book based on the idea of not waiting any longer for freedom.