Why We Can’t Wait

by

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Why We Can’t Wait: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Many Americans entered the summer of 1963 with the expectation that it would be a peaceful, prosperous season. Soon enough, though, the country entered a tumultuous period of upheaval that Dr. King considers the third revolution in the United States, dubbing it “the Negro Revolution.” 
Dr. King refers to the American Revolution and the Civil War in this section. The American Revolution took place between 1775 and 1781, a period in which the original American colonies won independence from the British crown, officially establishing the United States. The American Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865, as northern states in the Union fought against southern states in the Confederacy, eventually abolishing slavery and dissolving the Confederacy. By couching the civil rights movement in the historical context of these fights for freedom, Dr. King frames the campaign for racial equality as a moral and pivotal fight in the nation’s overall path toward justice.
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Like the French Revolution in 1789, the 1963 push  for racial equality largely took place in the streets, as most of the country’s cities became embroiled in a struggle against segregation. White people in the United States had come to see Black people as subservient and submissive, resigned to the many laws and social customs that prohibited them from enjoying the same liberties as white citizens. In reality, though, the Black community had been slowly building up the strength and will to stand up against racism—and in 1963, 300 years of oppression finally brought themselves to bear on the country.
Dr. King underscores the fact that the civil rights movement was a grassroots effort that played out in a very tangible way—it wasn’t some abstract call for equality. Rather, it was a pressing, urgent effort led by the Black community itself. Despite the sense of urgency in the Black community, though, the vast majority of white Americans showed complacency, assuming that the current system wasn’t so bad and believing that Black Americans should simply wait for change. In fact, the country’s ignorance was one of the civil rights movement’s biggest stumbling blocks.
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Several years ago, Dr. King was in Harlem signing books when he felt a sharp pain in his chest. Looking up, he realized he’d been stabbed by a woman brandishing a letter opener. Upon reaching the hospital, he languished in pain for several hours before going into surgery. Later, the chief surgeon told him why he’d had to wait so long: the sharp tip of the letter opener had been touching his heart, so it was necessary to open his entire chest. If he had sneezed just once, the blade would have pierced his heart and flooded his chest with blood. In the summer of 1963, Dr. King writes, the United States faced the same kind of urgency.
Dr. King’s analogy emphasizes the nation’s pressing need for racial equality in 1963. By suggesting this kind of urgency, he implies that a failure to address racism and inequality could easily lead to chaos and even violence. He isn’t threatening white America by suggesting that the civil rights movement will mount a violent campaign against segregationists—rather, he simply implies that there’s so much turmoil bubbling under the surface of daily life in the United States that society could easily erupt into unrest if the nation doesn’t address its racism and division.
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If it weren’t for the social revolution that took place in 1963, Dr. King believes that the nation would have descended into horrible violence. Because Black Americans have suffered for so long, though, Dr. King turns his attention to an important question: of all times, why did the revolution come about in 1963?
Although some complacent white people saw the civil rights movement as a disruption of society, Dr. King makes it clear that the opposite was true: the revolution that took place in 1963 actually helped the nation avoid violence. The implication here is that sometimes it’s necessary to address difficult matters head-on, even if this means disturbing the status quo—a status quo that, in this case, would have led to violence and turmoil.
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It has taken the United States an incredibly long time to achieve desegregation. Even though the Supreme Court determined in 1954 that it was illegal to segregate schools based on race, only 9 percent of Black students in the South had started attending integrated schools by 1963. To put this into perspective, such a pace would mean that total integration in the South wouldn’t happen until 2054.
Dr. King dispels the idea that the call for desegregation in 1963 was sudden or unexpected. The United States had been working toward racial equality in some areas of life, but the nation’s efforts barely brought about any change at all, as evidenced by the ineffectiveness of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling. It thus became necessary for the civil rights movement to advocate for faster, more meaningful progress.
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White southerners strongly renounced the Supreme Court’s decision to integrate schools. Racists went out of their way to make integration all but impossible, using all kinds of tactics to counteract the Supreme Court’s legal intentions. What’s more, the Supreme Court passed the Pupil Placement Law shortly after its 1954 decision to integrate. The Pupil Placement Law dictated that states were allowed to determine the placement of students based on “subjective criteria.” Although the Supreme Court didn’t fully take back its own decision, then, it ensured that school segregation would continue even though it was technically illegal. 
The Supreme Court essentially took a big step forward and then immediately took a step backward. Although it became illegal in 1954 to segregate schools, the Pupil Placement Law enabled segregationist state leaders to decide where students went to school, and because this decision was based on “subjective criteria,” these leaders didn’t have to justify their methods of placement. Consequently, officials could easily group Black students together in one school and white students in another, thereby establishing an informal kind of segregation.
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One of the reasons that the Black community organized a revolution in 1963 is that Black people were severely disappointed that the desegregation law of 1954 hadn’t led to any sense of true progress. Furthermore, Black Americans were unhappy with their political representatives, as even progressive candidates who ran their campaigns on the promise of racial justice backed away from such ideas once they took office. President Kennedy, for example, was in the White House for two years before he acted on his pledge to address housing discrimination—and the bill he signed to address this discrimination wasn’t as helpful as it could have been.
Dr. King clarifies yet another reason that the Black community took it upon itself to strive toward change: simply put, it became clear that nobody else would help Black Americans achieve racial equality. The Supreme Court’s ineffectiveness proved that the nation’s power structures were unlikely to bring about real progress, as did President Kennedy’s first two years in office. Although the Supreme Court and Kennedy did take steps to address the issue of racial inequality, these steps were more symbolic than anything else.
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As the Black community stood up against various injustices in the years leading up to 1963, white officials often urged organizers like Dr. King to stop protesting. Instead of marching in the streets, white officials said, the Black community ought to focus on registering Black Americans to vote. Dr. King recognizes the importance of voting, but he was weary at the time of focusing on just one issue. 
The advice (if it can even be called advice) that white officials imparted to Dr. King in the early 1960s failed to grasp the urgent need for racial equality in the United States. Instead of helping Dr. King and other activists mount successful campaigns for justice, white leaders perpetuated the complacent idea that Black Americans should wait patiently for change—even though such change would clearly never come about on its own.
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Dr. King also notes that any discussion of racial equality should take the bigger picture of international politics into account—after all, the United States has long developed foreign policy based on the idea of preserving freedom at all costs. But as the country fought for freedom abroad, it denied its own Black citizens that very same liberty. Meanwhile, Black Americans watched as African and Asian nations won their freedom from colonization in the aftermath of World War II. By 1963, then, Black Americans were ready for true freedom in their own country.
Dr. King’s point about foreign policy spotlights the nation’s hypocrisy. For a country that supposedly upholds the idea of “liberty and justice for all,” the United States had a remarkable amount of inequality and discrimination. The fact that the country often intervened in foreign affairs to promote freedom is especially significant, drawing attention to the glaring disconnect between the United States’ values and its actual practices at home. And though Dr. King doesn’t get into the extremely complicated fallout that often took place once countries liberated themselves from colonial rule, his point emphasizes just how frustrating it would have been to watch the rest of the world strive toward freedom while the United States—the supposed champion of liberty—refused to grant full freedom to its own Black citizens.
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The 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was an exciting event, but it also gave Black Americans an occasion to reflect on how little had changed since Abraham Lincoln tried to establish racial equality. Although Lincoln freed Black people from the horrors of slavery, daily living conditions remained bleak and strenuous. By 1963, the majority of Black Americans faced extreme poverty and no clear path to success, especially since the lack of adequate education in most Black communities made it that much harder for Black people to acquire skills that would help them find good jobs.
The Emancipation Proclamation was an important historical landmark, but it didn’t grant Black Americans a substantial, genuine kind of freedom. Although it declared all enslaved Black people free, the fact remained that racism was still deeply embedded in the United States, ultimately curtailing Black Americans’ liberty. Dr. King calls attention to the long-lasting effects of racism as a way of highlighting the cycles of discrimination that have historically made it difficult for Black people to succeed in the United States. In turn, he illustrates the need for comprehensive legal measures that would not only get rid of segregation, but also make up for the disadvantages that Black people have faced in the 100 years following the Emancipation Proclamation.
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One of the defining elements of the push for racial equality in 1963 was the focus on nonviolent direct action. Dr. King sees this nonviolence as something that aligns with Christian values—values that are, in his estimation, at the heart of the entire nation. The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956 proved that nonviolent direct action is an effective tool for addressing injustice. By 1963, then, the Black community was ready to use a nonviolent approach on a large scale. According to Dr. King, nonviolence is a “powerful and just weapon” that “ennobles” whoever uses it. It is the “sword that heals.”
It's helpful to remember that Dr. King was a Christian minister, meaning that his approach to activism was partially informed by his religious worldview. In particular, this worldview promoted the value of love, fellowship, and peace. Instead of challenging racism through violence and anger, then, he drew upon his faith in humankind’s ability to show love and compassion for one another. Nonviolent direct action was therefore a perfect way to challenge injustice without actually doing anything immoral, which is why Dr. King believes that it’s an honorable method that “ennobles” the people who use it. By peacefully and levelheadedly refusing to cooperate with an unjust system (which is what Rosa Parks did in Montgomery, Alabama, when she declined to give up her seat on a segregated bus), activists were able to stand up to their oppressors while maintaining a sense of morality.
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