Why We Can’t Wait

by

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Why We Can’t Wait: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The revolution in 1963 didn’t take place because Black people suddenly lost patience with the rest of the country. After all, Dr. King argues that Black people were never patient in the first place. Although many white Americans view Black Americans as willing to wait for true freedom, Dr. King notes that the “posture of silent waiting” has actually been “forced” on the Black community. During slavery, there were horrifying consequences for those who stood up for themselves. Then, after the Civil War, the country developed new ways to suppress Black people, as Jim Crow laws and lynchings threatened those who tried to exercise their freedom. Many white Southerners think Black people are quite happy, Dr. King points out, but only because Black people know it’s dangerous to express discontent in racist environments.
There is a vast gap, Dr. King argues, between the assumptions white people make about Black people and what it’s actually like to be Black in the United States. It’s all too easy for white Americans to tell themselves that Black Americans are “patient” and content to wait for change, but this perspective fails to take into account the fact that Black Americans have good reason to keep their true feelings secret. They have, after all, been forced into a “posture of silent waiting,” since speaking out against racism is a dangerous thing to do in a country that contains so much hatred and white supremacy. Historically, Black Americans who have challenged racism have been at risk of violent retaliation, so it makes sense that Black people were hesitant to voice their true opinions on the issue of segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. What’ s more, ignoring this dynamic was yet another form of white complacency, as white Americans simply told themselves what they wanted to hear about how Black people view segregation.
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Police officers have historically gotten away with extremely violent behavior toward Black people. Dr. King notes that such brutality is why Black people have often refrained from standing up for themselves, fearing violence and imprisonment. In fact, the threat of imprisonment has long prevented Black people from pursuing freedom. But nonviolent direct action changed this: by willingly accepting—and even hoping for—imprisonment, Black protestors mystified police officers, who were suddenly unsure of what to do.
Dr. King argues that nonviolent direct action challenged law enforcement’s fearmongering tactics. Instead of allowing police brutality and aggression to intimidate them, demonstrators in the civil rights movement embraced the idea of getting beaten or going to jail, thus stripping police officers of their power to intimidate. In fact, making sure peaceful demonstrators went to jail was a key part of the movement’s strategy, since it called attention to the unfair treatment of peaceful Black Americans. Nonviolence therefore subverted the power dynamics between Black protestors and white authorities.
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Dr. King believes in the power of nonviolent direct action because it neutralizes the threats that have historically kept Black people from standing up against racism. American society has long used the threat of “cruel and unjust punishment” to oppress Black Americans. But when Black people willingly and publicly accept that punishment—even though they’ve done nothing wrong—it strips racist authorities of their power. It also highlights racist injustice, since such harsh treatment calls attention to extreme power imbalances.
Again, Dr. King underscores the importance of nonviolent direct action by explaining its usefulness as a strategy that subverts the power imbalance between Black Americans and white police forces. Because police officers were so used to treating Black people with violence and aggression, they were at a loss when demonstrators started seeking out this exact kind of treatment and using it to their advantage—a good illustration of how ill-equipped authorities were when it came to treating Black Americans with fairness and compassion.
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In the 1950s and early 1960s, American society avoided striving for true racial equality by resorting to tokenism: the practice of making isolated, symbolic steps toward equality without addressing inequality on a broader scale. The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to make school segregation illegal was a good example of tokenism, since it was little more than a gesture; school segregation became illegal, but things remained almost entirely the same because nobody enforced the law. 
Tokenism increased the sense of complacency among white Americans when it came to issues of racial inequality. Because the Supreme Court had made a ruling that seemed significant, many white people felt as if the country had done enough and didn’t need to keep striving toward equality. And yet, the Pupil Placement law ensured that school segregation was still very much in effect, even if segregation was technically illegal. Although white lawmakers had made a move toward change, then, it amounted to little more than a symbolic gesture that—in some ways—stalled the nation’s progress.
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In keeping with the country’s tokenism, some Black Americans managed to find success in the 1950s and early 1960s, but the vast majority of the Black community still lived in poverty. What’s more, most Black Americans had no real path to success or financial stability—except, of course, for a lucky few. Although the country hadn’t achieved true equality, then, white leaders were able to point to a small percentage of Black people and claim that the nation as a whole was making progress.  
Again, Dr. King explains the dangers of tokenism, which uplifts small instances of equality but fails to bring about true change. The fact that some Black Americans became successful in the 1950s and 1960s was, in some ways, a measure of how far the country had come, since it was much harder for Black people to attain financial or professional success in the 19th century. And yet, these isolated examples of Black success weren’t accurate representations of the rest of the Black American population, which still lived in poverty and dealt with racist limitations. Therefore, tokenism simply masked the country’s deeper problems.
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Some people argue that tokenism is a good first step toward equality. Their reasoning is that it’s necessary for society to start somewhere, so uplifting a select few people is a step in the right direction. But Dr. King disagrees. Tokenism isn’t a good place to start because it’s not actually a step toward anything—it’s just an “end in itself,” providing white people with an excuse to stop pursuing true equality.
Dr. King continues to outline the harmful effects of tokenism. Although some people think that tokenism is the first step toward real progress, Dr. King explains that the opposite is true: tokenism actually interferes with progress. It does so by creating a false sense of equality and thus taking away what little motivation white people have to work toward legitimate change.
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Writing this book in 1964, Dr. King acknowledges that there has been quite a bit of progress in the last year. But the progress that has been made isn’t enough, and it’s ridiculous to expect that Black people should be satisfied or thankful that society has come this far. After all, Black people still can’t fully enjoy the rights they deserve simply by virtue of the fact that they’re human beings living in a country that supposedly stands for liberty and justice for all. 
Many white people in the early 1960s thought American society had made admirable steps toward equality. Worse, many believed that Black Americans should be grateful for these steps, failing to recognize two things: first, that little had truly changed and, second, that Black Americans shouldn’t have to be thankful for gradual progress toward the freedom that rightfully belonged to them all along.
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Dr. King reviews the various approaches that prominent Black leaders have taken in the past to address racism and inequality. After Reconstruction, Booker T. Washington urged his fellow Black Americans to make peace with their current station in life, telling them to enjoy the few freedoms available to them at the time—an approach that many found pessimistic.
The Reconstruction Era began after the Civil War in 1865 and lasted until 1877. During this period, formerly enslaved Black people were technically granted the same rights as white Americans. However, American society—especially in the South—was still quite racist and was, as a result, slow to actually grant Black Americans the full extent of the freedom promised by the Emancipation Proclamation. In the face of Jim Crow laws and widespread lynchings, the prominent Black leader Booker T. Washington urged Black people to excel in business and industrial labor instead of directly resisting segregation. His idea was that Black Americans should succeed in the areas that were open to them at the time—a sentiment Dr. King finds defeatist.
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Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, on the other hand, argued around the beginning of the 20th century that a small, elite portion of the Black population should prosper and, in doing so, elevate the rest of the Black community. Although such an idea stands in contrast to Booker T. Washington’s somewhat defeatist attitude, Dr. King sees it as unhelpful because it excludes the vast majority of Black Americans.
The activist and public intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois disagreed with Booker T. Washington’s belief that Black Americans should focus on obtaining industrial and vocational educations. Instead, Du Bois argued, Black Americans ought to pursue higher education. He believed that a “talented tenth” of the Black population should form an intellectual elite and lead other Black people to success. But Dr. King sees this idea as too elitist and narrow—in order to build a successful revolution capable of bringing about change, he believes that Black people must unite and work together.
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Then, in the years after World War I, Marcus Garvey explicitly renounced the idea of accepting any sense of Black “inferiority.” Instead, he urged Black Americans to take pride in their race by returning to Africa. His idea struck a chord with many Black Americans because it emphasized that Black people have every reason to be proud of their race and cultural heritage. However, Dr. King notes that such an outlook was flawed because the idea of Black people migrating to Africa after 350 years of life in the “New World” didn’t feel like real progress. 
Marcus Garvey’s ideas about Black pride addressed the ridiculous notion that Black Americans were somehow less deserving of liberty and justice than their fellow white citizens. But Dr. King has a problem with the idea of Black people returning to their ancestral land of Africa because he believes doing so wouldn’t actually solve any problems—rather, it would just involve running away from American racism. Rather than retreating from the country’s problems, Dr. King wants to confront them head-on.
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After Marcus Garvey’s movement faded, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took center stage in the struggle for racial equality. The organization’s main tactic was to use the legal system to fight oppression—a tactic that Dr. King says was quite successful. For instance, the NAACP fought in court to ensure that Black Americans could vote in national elections. Dr. King recognizes the importance of such a victory, but he also notes that the country has frequently failed to actually act on important legal decisions, causing many Black Americans to slowly lose faith in the efficacy of challenging oppression in the courts. What should have been enormous victories have become small token steps toward equality.
Dr. King believes in the power of using the legal system to fight for racial equality, but he also recognizes that there’s a profound difference between a court ruling and what actually happens in the streets. After all, the Supreme Court—the highest, most powerful court in the entire country—outlawed school segregation, but even this ruling didn’t successfully bring about desegregation. Accordingly, Dr. King implies that it’s necessary to supplement the legal approach with more immediate, on-the-ground steps toward equality.
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By the mid-1950s, the NAACP’s legal activism no longer seemed effective enough to bring about true equality. According to Dr. King, any successful social movement needs to develop methods that are appropriate for the “circumstances of the period.” Without a clear way forward in the 1950s, some people advocated for violence, noting that such tactics led to meaningful change during the American Civil War or even during the Roman Empire. But Dr. King points out that Black Americans were in a different position in the 1950s because they didn’t stand to gain from violence. Although there were certainly many Black Americans willing to fight for their freedom, the prospects of victory were so slim that violent rebellion seemed futile.
Again, Dr. King devotes himself to nonviolent direct action. For him, responding to racism with violence or aggression would be useless because the powers of oppression are so strong in the United States. His viewpoint stands in contrast to some more militant movements like the Nation of Islam, which advocated for an adamant rejection of white culture and its oppressive ways. There are other reasons that Dr. King believes in nonviolence (reasons having to do with his religious and moral worldviews), but in this section he simply frames the question of whether or not to use violence as a purely tactical question: because using physical force would be futile and ineffective, it’s not worth pursuing a violent approach.
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More effective than violence, Dr. King argues, was Rosa Parks’s bravery when she peacefully refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in 1955—an event that led to the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and 1956. The boycotts were rooted in the church community, and Dr. King believes that the church ultimately became an integral part of the civil rights movement, especially in the advocacy of nonviolence. Black people, he says, refused to act out of violence because they knew that it was futile and—moreover—immoral. 
Whereas Dr. King previously rejected violent rebellion because he thought it was futile, now he adds that violence is immoral. He thus introduces his strong moral compass, which is directly tied to his religious worldview. As a minister, he strongly believes in the value of peace and fellowship, so it makes sense that he advocates for nonviolent direct action, which he believes is not only effective but also morally justifiable.
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Some Black Americans in the mid-20th century advocated for segregation, though from a different angle. Dr. King calls this movement the “Black Muslim” movement, noting that its adherents wanted to establish a Black community within the United States. The people involved in this movement were willing to resort to violence if that’s what it took to establish their own community. However, Dr. King notes that the strength and promise of nonviolent activism in 1963 turned many Black Americans away from the extremism of the “Black Muslim” movement. 
When Dr. King talks about the “Black Muslim” movement, he’s referring to the Nation of Islam—a Black nationalist movement that was especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s, attracting followers with bold ideas that stood in contrast to Dr. King’s message of peace and unity. Unlike Dr. King’s nonviolent philosophy, the Nation of Islam didn’t condemn the use of physical force, and though this drew the attention of many Black Americans, Dr. King argues that the nonviolent demonstrations in 1963 were so effective that they ultimately showed many followers of the Nation of Islam that it truly was possible to bring about change through peaceful means.
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Dr. King explains that some people urged Black Americans to unite with poor white people in the South. The underlying logic to this idea was that impoverished white southerners experience the same disadvantages as Black Americans. Although it’s true that poor white people in the South certainly face many hardships and setbacks, Dr. King emphasizes that these challenges aren’t the same ones that Black people face. Poor white people still have a chance to improve their circumstances, whereas Black people are at a disadvantage simply because of their race.
Dr. King makes an important distinction by highlighting the difference between the lack of opportunity and outright discrimination. Although impoverished white people certainly found it hard to succeed in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s (and, for that matter, even in contemporary times), there were still opportunities open to them. Black Americans, on the other hand, were completely cut off from professional opportunities that would lead to success and financial stability.
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Faced with many challenges, Dr. King says that Black Americans found hope in nonviolent direct action. There was even a rich history of nonviolent activism to draw upon, since similarly peaceful protests and boycotts were successful in standing up against the oppressive British monarchy when the United States was nothing more than a collection of colonies striving for independence. By practicing nonviolent protest in highly publicized contexts, Black Americans were able to draw attention to how terribly white officials treated them. Although the United States often values aggression, it also responds well to grand displays of morality. Consequently, the civil rights movement was able to turn “hatred into constructive energy.” Black Americans could thus fight for their own freedom while also helping free white oppressors from sin.
Dr. King lays out the moral foundation of nonviolent direct action, which he points out is not a new concept. To the contrary, there have been many peaceful protests throughout the nation’s history, suggesting that this method of activism is directly in line with the values that people hold dear in the United States. What’s more, he hints at the fact that oppression and discrimination are morally wrong. By using nonviolence to fight off such hateful practices, then, he believes the Black community is actually helping their fellow citizens avoid immoral behavior. In other words, fighting racism doesn’t just benefit Black Americans—it benefits everyone in the United States.
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Dr. King thinks of the Birmingham movement in 1963 as a nonviolent “army.” One benefit of a nonviolent army is that anyone can participate in it. Whereas normal armies can only accept adult members, nonviolent ones can welcome anyone into their ranks. In fact, some of the most important participants in the 1963 movement were children and teenagers. To that end, the nonviolent army in Birmingham was made up of a diverse collective. Prestigious, successful community members worked alongside average citizens of every age.
Part of the success of the civil rights movement in 1963 was its sense of inclusivity and unity. Dr. King and his fellow organizers didn’t have to turn anyone away from the movement, as long as participants agreed with their nonviolent values. In this way, the Birmingham movement harnessed the power of cohesion and unity, which were perfect antidotes to the country’s hatred and division.
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Nonviolence was effective because powerful white officials didn’t know how to respond. When they used violence against peaceful protestors, the country saw the kind of injustice Black people faced in the United States. Surprisingly, though, very few people in the Birmingham nonviolent army were injured during 1963. Dr. King believes this was partially because police officers knew the nation was watching, but also because hundreds of Black protestors and marchers courageously peered back at their oppressors, looking them in the eye and, in doing so, making it much harder for the officers to treat them with such ruthless cruelty.
The effectiveness of nonviolent direct action had to do with the spotlight it shone on injustice. No matter what a person believed about segregation, it became much harder to justify racist ideas after watching an aggressive police officer mercilessly beat a peaceful Black citizen. At the same time, even the police officers themselves seemed to refrain—in many cases, at least—from using violence, thereby illustrating how much harder it was for them to resort to cruelty when demonstrators forced them to acknowledge their humanity.
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Dr. King considers why it took so long for Black Americans to embrace nonviolent direct action. One reason is that not everyone agreed about the best tactic to address oppression. Some viewed nonviolence as a mere stand-in for other solutions, but Dr. King maintains that nonviolent direct action isn’t a “substitute” for other methods. For instance, it’s still necessary to pursue victories in court—but legal action should happen in conjunction with nonviolent activism.
Again, Dr. King considers the importance of unity when it comes to community organizing. Although nonviolent direct action was a proven method capable of bringing about change, many people in the civil rights movement resisted it at first. This resistance to the movement’s approach was a stumbling block because it led to division within the ranks of the protestors. One critique was that nonviolence wasn’t a good stand-in for other approaches—but Dr. King and his fellow organizers never claimed it was a good “substitute” in the first place. Dr. King championed nonviolent direct action, but that doesn’t mean he wanted to exclusively focus the movement on a single tactic. Rather, it was just one angle of approach.
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In fact, nonviolent direct action goes quite well with the legal approach. After all, part of practicing nonviolent direct action means willingly going to jail—but filling up jail cells is only a smart tactic if there’s a way to then get those activists out of jail. In 1963, the Birmingham nonviolent army used legal tactics to ensure that participants weren’t wrongfully held in jail. 
Again, Dr. King clarifies that his approach to activism isn’t narrowly focused on just one method. Although he believes strongly in the power of nonviolent direct action, he sees it as one of several tools available to community organizers. Nonviolent direct action drew attention to the movement by filling the Birmingham jails with peaceful protestors. But the movement’s tactical thinking couldn’t stop there. Once protestors had been jailed, the movement needed to use its legal apparatus to ensure their release. And all the while, it was necessary for the civil rights movement to continue challenging unjust laws in the courts, essentially launching a comprehensive, multidimensional attack on racism and segregation.
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Birmingham was the perfect place to stage a new push for desegregation. It was the biggest southern industrial city, and it had a history of extreme racism and segregation. Nonviolent direct action, Dr. King notes, was the perfect tactic to use in such a city. Although similar techniques had failed to bring about sweeping change in a campaign for equality in Albany, Georgia the previous year, Dr. King maintains that enough people had accepted the nonviolent method by 1963 to render it successful in a divided and oppressive community like the one in Birmingham that summer.
The campaign for desegregation and racial equality in Albany, Georgia, didn’t necessarily achieve everything it set out to achieve, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still an important part of the overall civil rights movement. After all, bringing about change takes time, largely because organizers have to learn the most effective ways to challenge injustice. For Dr. King, then, Albany was a chance to hone his skills as a leader of a nonviolent direct-action campaign—an invaluable lesson that laid the groundwork for the Birmingham movement. 
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