Why We Can’t Wait

by

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Why We Can’t Wait: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Albert Boutwell won the run-off election. Although the press heralded his victory as a “new day” in Birmingham, Dr. King recognized that Boutwell—a segregationist—wouldn’t bring meaningful change to the city; in fact, he was one of the main authors of the Pupil Placement Law that essentially negated the 1954 Supreme Court ruling to outlaw school segregation.
The media response to Boutwell’s victory highlights the unfounded optimism many white people had when it came to achieving progress. Whereas white people saw small shifts in power as proof of imminent change, many Black Americans like Dr. King understood that simply putting a new segregationist in office wouldn’t do much to change the status quo of racism and white complacency in Birmingham.
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Even though he lost the mayoral election, Bull Connor maintained that he couldn’t actually be removed from his position as Commissioner of Public Safety until 1965. He planned to take this issue to court. Even if he lost, he would remain in power until April 15th—the day after Easter.
Because of Bull Connor’s stubborn refusal to leave office, Dr. King and the rest of the civil rights movement were forced to deal with a deeply racist Commissioner of Public Safety—yet another hurdle to face in the movement for racial equality, which already had to contend with quite a bit of adversity.
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The direct-action campaign started small. Dr. King didn’t want to run out of steam, hoping the campaign would increase in intensity as it went along. As such, demonstrators came together in small groups and staged sit-ins at segregated stores. They politely refused to leave and were subsequently arrested. As the campaign began, Dr. King and his associates held nightly meetings with the Black community. Leaders like Ralph Abernathy and Wyatt Walker spoke at these meetings, as did Dr. King. The gatherings were an important part of the movement, as they helped the campaign’s organizers connect with the community and rouse its spirit. The attendees often sang freedom songs during the meetings, and these songs helped solidify a sense of hope and resilience in the movement.
The importance of unity is clear in Dr. King’s description of the direct-action campaign’s early days. Although the demonstrations started small, the movement itself was busy strategically cultivating a strong and cohesive community of activists. By speaking to Black participants on a nightly basis, Dr. King and his fellow leaders drew people together and motivated them to keep striving toward racial equality, ultimately building the foundation of a movement capable of endurance and determination.
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Dr. King, Shuttlesworth, and Abernathy made it very clear to volunteers that they were only welcome in the movement if they believed in nonviolence. They convinced many to give up their weapons, insisting that such things would be useless and harmful during the demonstrations. What’s more, Dr. King and the others didn’t necessarily let anyone who wanted to protest join the ranks of the demonstrators—there were rigid rules and “tests.” Still, though, there were other jobs to be done, so anyone who couldn’t demonstrate was put to work running errands, making phone calls, or completing other important tasks.
Dr. King once again emphasizes his commitment to nonviolence, refusing to send anyone incapable of remaining peaceful to the front lines of the direct-action campaign. However, he still recognized the value of cohesion within the movement, which is why he and the other leaders never completely turned anyone away, either. Everyone had a place in the movement, thus ensuring that the push for racial justice was strong and comprehensive on all fronts.
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Not everyone in the Black community supported the direct-action campaign. Some Black people were hesitant to stand up to oppression, having convinced themselves that things in Birmingham weren’t so bad after all. Dr. King recognizes this mentality as an unfortunately common one across the nation, as Black people allowed themselves to be “brainwashed” by their oppressors. As a result, the movement didn’t have the kind of unity required to make it an overwhelming success at the beginning. Another obstacle was that the national press was against the movement. There were articles condemning the effort and suggesting that the campaign was poorly timed. Dr. King found this assertion ridiculous—Black Americans, after all, had already been waiting 100 years for true freedom.
Although the civil rights movement was remarkably united, it’s still the case that many Black Americans were hesitant to participate in the Birmingham campaign, at least in the beginning. By mentioning this hesitancy, Dr. King sheds light on one of the difficulties of community organizing, implying that some people make peace with oppression as a defense mechanism of sorts—by telling themselves that things weren’t so bad in Birmingham, some of the city’s Black citizens had given themselves a way to downplay the pain of racism and segregation. This technique, however, obviously didn’t address the problem, which is why Dr. King wanted to mobilize Black Americans to confront their oppressors.
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Some influential Black leaders in Birmingham wanted to give Boutwell’s administration the chance to bring about change, hoping he would be more just than Bull Connor. What’s more, some leaders were offended that Dr. King and his associates hadn’t consulted with them before beginning the campaign, failing to recognize that it was necessary to keep the plan a secret so that it wouldn’t be used as political fodder during the election.
Dr. King and his fellow organizers didn’t just face adversity from the white community, but also faced internal division in the Black community. Given that Dr. King places so much importance on unity when it comes to activism, it’s clear that he must have been quite eager to address this division in an effort to ensure that the movement presented a united front against racism.
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Unity is an important part of any direct-action campaign, Dr. King argues. Therefore, he and his associates made a point of visiting multiple groups throughout Birmingham, hoping to connect with a “cross section” of leaders and citizens. Dr. King explained why the plans for the campaign had been secretive, and he addressed the concern that he was an “outsider” by pointing out that the SCLC was the parent organization of the ACHR, meaning that it wasn’t really an outside influence. Plus, he argued, Black people aren’t outsiders in any American town if what they’re trying to do is bring about equality and justice. Through these conversations, Dr. King convinced skeptics and helped establish a sense of unity that strengthened the cause.
Once more, Dr. King emphasizes the importance of unity when it comes to standing up against injustice. To convince Black people who had felt excluded from the planning of the Birmingham campaign, he levelheadedly explained that the movement had to remain a secret during the election—otherwise, it would have been demonized on the campaign trail. Similarly, he refuted the idea that he was an “outsider” by shedding light on the direct connection between the ACHR—an organization local to Alabama—and the SCLC. By hosting these conversations, Dr. King acted on his belief in unity, going out of his way to create a cohesive community capable of challenging the broader division in society at large.
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The first days of the campaign in Birmingham went as planned: the demonstrators remained peaceful and unified, even when facing police officers who carted them off to jail. Meanwhile, the boycott of downtown stores was going quite well. One surprise in the first week, however, was that the police were relatively restrained in their use of force. Dr. King suspects that Bull Connor had recognized that responding violently would look bad (though he also notes that this nonviolence wouldn’t last long).
The fact that the Birmingham police force didn’t immediately resort to violence was, in general, a good thing. In another sense, though, this lack of aggression also made it harder for the direct-action campaign to spotlight the police’s terrible treatment of Black citizens. It’s not that the authorities were actually peaceful on a regular basis, but that they seemed to understand—in a certain sense, at least—that all eyes were on them. However, they were unable to sustain their nonviolent tactics for very long, clearly indicating that they weren’t accustomed to treating Black people with peace and fairness.
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Bull Connor also held back from violence because he had another trick up his sleeve: the Birmingham government filed a court injunction ordering the protestors to stop until their “right to demonstrate had been argued in court.” The injunction posed a significant hurdle, since it would take a long time for the legal battle to play out—it could even take two to three years to settle the issue, and the Alabama courts were especially notorious for delaying decisions on such matters. It was quite common for powerful white authorities to use injunctions to squash nonviolent demonstrations for equality. 
The use of legal injunctions to stall civil rights campaigns demonstrates the extent to which racism was embedded in the power structures of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. King and the other organizers didn’t just have to contend with the racism of store owners and other white citizens, but also had to face systemic racism. Dr. King previously mentioned that nonviolent direct action wasn’t the only tactic that should be used in the fight for racial equality—at this point in the book, it becomes clear why this is the case: because it was also necessary to fight injustice in the courts.
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Dr. King and his associates had talked from the very beginning about the possible need to use civil disobedience. Although they wanted to avoid breaking the law, they were left with few other options. As such, they decided to ignore the court order to halt the demonstrations—a move that caught Birmingham officials by surprise. When Dr. King alerted the press that the campaign would continue in spite of the court order, he emphasized that the movement wasn’t “advocating lawlessness.” Instead, he said, it was simply clear that courts were abusing their power. 
Civil disobedience refers to a form of protest that involves refusing to obey certain laws. Dr. King and the other organizers of the Birmingham campaign decided to actively disobey the court order because the injunction would have completely ruined the entire movement. Because the injunction was such an obvious attempt to thwart a movement rooted in justice and equality, Dr. King was able to ignore it and still maintain a sense of morality.
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Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy planned to be the first ones to practice civil disobedience. The plan was for them to go to jail (for the first time during the movement) on Good Friday. Fifty other demonstrators would do the same. However, the day before, the movement’s leaders learned that the person providing funds to bail demonstrators out of jail wouldn’t be able to continue doing so. Dr. King and Abernathy debated with their associates late into the night, trying to decide if it would be wise for them to get arrested without knowing if they’d be bailed out. It was quite possible that, if they went to jail, it could be for a very, very long time.
The sudden lack of financial support for the direct-action campaign shows how important it is for movements to build large networks of people willing to contribute to the cause. Without bail money, Dr. King and Abernathy’s decision to go to jail became a much harder one to make, since the consequences of practicing civil disobedience could be quite severe—after all, the Alabama legal system was certainly not to be trusted when it came to giving prominent Black leaders fair treatment.
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On the one hand, Dr. King felt a responsibility to all those who had already sacrificed themselves by going to jail. On the other hand, he felt obligated to stay out of jail to help ensure that the other 300 people currently in jail would get bailed out. At one point in their deliberations, somebody addressed Dr. King directly and said that he couldn’t possibly go to jail, since if he did, all would be “lost.” Dr. King sat silently and thought, and as he did so, he felt as if he was plunged into the heaviest silence of his life. He was surrounded by friends, but he felt alone. But then he thought about the Black community—in Birmingham, in Alabama, in the entire country—and he announced that he would be going to jail. 
Dr. King’s tough decision illustrates the challenges that prominent leaders often face when spearheading a movement. Although he was surrounded by close allies, he couldn’t escape the burden of responsibility that fell to him—no matter what he did, the movement might be at risk. If he didn’t go to jail, he risked losing the faith of the many people who saw him as the movement’s driving force. But if he did go to jail, it might be harder for the movement to secure funds to bail out the many protestors who had followed his advice and gotten arrested. The fact that he chose to go to jail suggests that he prioritized solidarity above all else, wanting to stand in unity with his fellow protestors who had already gone to jail.
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Dr. King asked Abernathy to join him, and Abernathy didn’t hesitate. The next day, they marched from Zion Hill church to downtown Birmingham, flanked on all sides by Black demonstrators singing freedom songs.
Dr. King and Abernathy’s courage and conviction shines through in this moment, as they set aside their personal wellbeing in the name of racial justice. There’s a celebratory atmosphere at play here, as demonstrators sang freedom songs that symbolize the undaunted, noble fight for equality.
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In jail, Dr. King and Abernathy were separated. Dr. King was put into solitary confinement, where he stayed for more than 24 hours. In the darkness of imprisonment, he wondered how things were progressing with the movement and felt unsure about what would happen. The jailers didn’t beat him, but his time in isolation was torturous in and of itself. His wife, Coretta, had just given birth to their fourth child. Not only had he left them in Atlanta, but now Coretta couldn’t even contact him while he was in jail. Worried about his safety, she contacted President Kennedy, who told her he would ensure that all was well. Shortly thereafter, Dr. King was permitted to call Coretta.
It makes sense that solitary confinement was especially torturous for Dr. King, considering that he was cut off from the movement to which he had devoted himself so thoroughly. In fact, his isolation in jail stood in direct opposition to the unity he’d helped build throughout the Black community in Birmingham. Unable to communicate with anyone else, he had no idea what was going on with the push for racial equality—something that deeply distressed him.
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On Easter Sunday, Dr. King learned that Harry Belafonte had raised $50,000 for bail. Dr. King was overwhelmed with gratitude, feeling as if he hadn’t truly been alone when he was in solitary confinement: “God’s companionship does not stop at the door of a jail cell,” he notes. And with the news of Belafonte’s kindness, he felt a great surge of hope.
Yet again, the importance of strong support networks becomes quite clear, as Dr. King manages to get released from jail because of the effort he and his colleagues put into drumming up support before the direct-action campaign even began. Dr. King views the compassion and unity of his supporters in a religious light, drawing on his vocation as a minister and implying that unity and “companionship” are divine things that are stronger than any divisive force.
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