Until the summer of 1963, Dr. King argues, Black Americans had so little support in American society that there was a prevailing sense of helplessness. He tells an anecdote about the first person to be executed with poison gas in the United States. The prisoner was a Black man, and there was a microphone in the room recording his last words, which were: “Save me, Joe Louis.” Joe Louis was a famous heavyweight boxing champion. Dr. King suggests that he was the only person the prisoner could think to call out for, simply because Louis was the only prominent, potentially powerful Black person in the entire nation.
The story Dr. King tells about the first person to be executed by poison gas illustrates just how unsupported many Black people felt before 1963. Without many powerful figures to look toward, Black Americans had very few people to advocate for them—something that Dr. King implies is no longer the case because of the civil rights movement.
By 1963, though, it was no longer the case that Black Americans had nobody to look to. The sense of helplessness gave way to a sense of “confidence” through nonviolent direct action. The demonstrators in Birmingham didn’t wait for freedom and equality—they took it for themselves. With so much change, Dr. King notes, Black Americans left behind the “psychology of servitude,” which is a necessary step toward true freedom.
The civil rights movement, Dr. King implies, gave many Black Americans a sense of agency and control over their own lives. Instead of simply going along with the status quo, many Black Americans were empowered by the campaign to stand up against injustice, thus escaping the “psychology of servitude” that had long made it difficult to reject racism and discrimination.
Although it would be nice if Dr. King could say that the victory in Birmingham led to lasting peace and equality, that’s not the case. After the success of the negotiations in the summer of 1963, a group of white supremacists bombed a Black church in September, killing four young girls who were attending Sunday school. On the same day, police killed yet another child, and white supremacists murdered a Black boy riding his bike in the streets. Dr. King notes that these events are clearly awful, but not as awful as the white community’s failure to respond to them. Very few white leaders spoke out against these atrocities, making the summer’s efforts toward racial equality seem somewhat insignificant and meaningless.
Once again, a sense of apathy and complacency defined the white community’s response to horrific and racist events. The fact that the summer’s negotiations didn’t fully address this kind of complacency suggests that the civil rights movement had yet to fundamentally change the way white society thought about racism. The Birmingham campaign achieved a legal victory by pushing the city toward desegregation, but there was still a much bigger battle to fight: namely, the act of getting white Americans to think compassionately about the horrors of racism—something that has unfortunately continued to be a problem in the many decades following the civil rights movement.
There’s no doubt that the movement achieved great success in Birmingham, even if—at the time of writing Why We Can’t Wait in 1964—there’s a “lull.” Dr. King wanted to stage more demonstrations in the wake of the church bombing in September of 1963, but his fellow leaders convinced him otherwise. Because Dr. King believes that the movement’s biggest asset is its sense of unity, he relented. As it stands in 1964, the powerful white figures in Birmingham have the opportunity to stick to their original promise by working toward true desegregation and equality. Even if it decides not to pursue these things, though, Dr. King is confident that the movement will succeed. Birmingham will achieve racial equality one way or another, either willingly or through new direct-action efforts.
Once again, Dr. King shows his strong sense of hope. He has faith that the civil rights movement will succeed, even if it’s clear that white Americans are still complacent when it comes to bringing about true change. His unwavering faith in the movement is most likely a product of his religious outlook on life: because he believes in the power of goodness to triumph over evil, he has no doubt that racial equality will win in the end—the only question is how long that will take and how much more pain American society will have to bear before reaching true justice.
Any successful movement both attracts new people to its ranks and motivates enemies or detractors. Dr. King notes that the revolution in Birmingham was no exception. Despite its many enemies, the revolution spread far beyond Birmingham, as people from every major city in the United States flocked to the movement. Police officers didn’t know what to do with the surge of demonstrators, especially since the new activists included ministers and other successful, reputable members of society. It was therefore even more egregiously and obviously unjust when police officers responded to peaceful protest with violence and aggression.
Dr. King rehashes his previous ideas about unity and the efficacy of nonviolent direct action. Because the civil rights movement in 1963 included such a broad coalition of Black Americans, some of the Black community’s most respectable figures joined the ranks of demonstrators and practiced nonviolence. In doing so, they made it harder for white people to ignore the police’s aggressive tactics, which felt especially glaring when wielded against reputable figures like peaceful Christian ministers (to take just one example of a respectable community member).
The social revolution in 1963 also put new pressure on white moderates. Before the movement, they championed tokenism as a way of supposedly promoting racial equality. But the demonstrations in 1963 showed white moderates that tokenism wasn’t nearly enough—the movement didn’t push for a select few people to rise to the top, it pushed for all Black Americans to have fair opportunities. Moreover, demonstrators across the country made it clear that they would no longer stand for mere tokenism and other escapist ways of avoiding the problem of racism in the United States.
As Dr. King has already explained, tokenism has historically enabled complacent white Americans to take merely symbolic steps toward racial equality without actually doing anything to genuinely achieve that equality. After the Birmingham movement, however, white moderates saw that such methods of avoiding the issue would no longer stand. In other words, the direct-action campaign forced white America to finally confront its own complacency.
Dr. King points out that, although many people view the movement as something that has burdened the nation, the truth is that Black activists are actually helping the country as a whole. The entire nation was built upon the horrific genocide of the Native American population—a terrible and immoral blunder. By pushing the country toward racial equality, then, Black activists force the nation to finally confront the atrociously “racist ideology” that has long tarnished its legacy. The fight for racial equality, Dr. King argues, is a fight that will improve the nation as a whole.
Dr. King sees the push for equality as something that extends beyond the Black community. By reminding readers that the entire United States was founded on the horrific treatment of Native Americans, he emphasizes the country’s desperate need to address its ugly history. And though the horrible genocide of the Native American population has already taken place, it’s not too late to—at the very least—stop using the same “racist ideology” that led to such genocidal behavior in the first place.
After the significant events that took place in the summer of 1963, civil rights leaders felt that there should be some sort of “climax.” Consequently, they organized the March on Washington, which brought almost 250,000 people to the nation’s capital in a grand push for racial equality. Some Black leaders were skeptical of the idea, fearing that any outbreak of violence would set the movement back. But others—like Dr. King—had faith in the Black community to gather peacefully and make an honorable stand for freedom.
The March on Washington was one of the biggest events in the civil rights movement, attracting attention from across the nation. It was yet another nonviolent way of highlighting the urgent need for racial equality, meaning that it emerged from the very same kind of strategic thinking that drove the Birmingham campaign.
One testament to the headway the Black community made in 1963 was the fact that major media outlets gave fair and supportive coverage to the March on Washington. Normally, Dr. King notes, the media misrepresented Black people and demonized their efforts to bring about racial equality. Now, though, the media responded favorably to the March on Washington, allowing millions of white Americans to finally view Black citizens in a positive light—something that challenged the negative stereotypes surrounding Black Americans.
The positive media coverage that the March on Washington received was significant because it was one of the first times that the civil rights movement wasn’t skewered in a public forum. Considering that the major news outlets were predominantly white organizations run by powerful white figures, it’s especially notable that the march received favorable coverage—a good sign of the change that was taking place in society as a whole.