Dr. King considers American society’s troubling tendency to remain indifferent in the face of “human suffering.” During slavery, formerly enslaved people could purchase their family members’ freedom if they had enough money. As a result, many formerly enslaved Black people asked white people for help: “Help me buy my mother,” they might ask. Dr. King says that many non-enslavers found it difficult to refuse such a request. He also notes that such questions forced white people who previously overlooked the horrors of slavery to reckon with the utter inhumanity of the practice. Looking back on this history from 1964, Dr. King suggests that ignoring the problematic nature of segregation was similar to ignoring the horrors of slavery.
Again, Dr. King scrutinizes the dangers of white complacency, arguing that an unfortunate number of white Americans find it all too easy to overlook otherwise glaring forms of inhumanity and injustice. As soon as these white people are forced to actually consider what it would be like to endure such injustice, though, they tend to change their minds and pay more attention to the problem. As such, Dr. King wants to shine a spotlight on the racism that is still very much alive in the United States.
Some white people criticize the desegregation effort by asking what more Black Americans will want if society grants them their current demands. In response, Dr. King reasons that society doesn’t have the right to “bargain” with Black people over rights to which they are automatically entitled as American citizens. And when white people suggest that Black Americans shouldn’t demand freedom all at once because it will eventually come about on its own, Dr. King upholds that “gradualism and moderation” are inadequate solutions. Partial freedom, he says, doesn’t count as freedom at all.
It's ridiculous, Dr. King implies, for white people to act as if they’re doing a kind, beneficent thing by finally giving Black Americans the freedom and liberty to which they’ve always been entitled. As Americans—and, more to the point, as human beings—Black people shouldn’t have to “bargain” for rights that anyone and everyone should already have. Dr. King thus challenges the patronizing and racist idea that Black Americans are asking for too much by demanding equal rights.
Delaying full freedom won’t work because all Black Americans understand that it’s their right to be free. “Gradualism” is therefore not only unjust, but also doomed to fail. What’s more, delaying racial equality will slow down not just the Black community’s progress, but also the progress of the entire country. The only way to proceed, Dr. King suggests, is by recognizing that Black Americans face a number of complicated challenges because of the country’s long history of oppression and discrimination. Only by acknowledging these challenges will society manage to foster an environment in which equality can flourish.
An important part of Dr. King’s argument is that equality isn’t just something that will benefit Black Americans—it’s also something that will improve the entire country. For instance, because segregation keeps skillful Black workers from filling certain jobs, the workforce (and the economy as a whole) is at a disadvantage. What’s more, racism is immoral, so Dr. King upholds that eradicating it would benefit the United States by turning it into a just and moral country.
Dr. King argues that the government should provide Black Americans with financial assistance as a way of leveling society’s playing field. Because Black Americans have been actively discriminated against for hundreds of years, it’s ridiculous to think that they will suddenly have the resources to “compete on a just and equal basis.” If a man running in a footrace took off from the starting line 300 years after his opponent, it would obviously be impossible for him to catch up. The same is true, Dr. King contends, for Black Americans trying to support themselves in a society that has historically oppressed and excluded them.
Dr. King illustrates the fact that the United States has historically hindered Black Americans’ ability to achieve success. His analogy to the footrace helps illustrate just how much of a disadvantage Black Americans still face in the United States. Whereas white people have always had resources available to help them succeed, Black Americans have been actively held back. Because of this long history of oppression, even if racism magically disappeared all at once, Black people would still be at a disadvantage compared to white people.
Without tangible forms of support, the freedoms that come along with desegregation will mean very little to Black Americans. For instance, Black Americans won’t benefit from the ability to live in an integrated neighborhood if they can’t afford to live in such communities in the first place. Or, to put it another way, to give someone who doesn’t know how to walk a pair of shoes is a “cruel jest.”
By suggesting that the government provide Black Americans with various forms of support, Dr. King makes a case for reparations, or a kind of compensation intended to make up for previous injustices. Without these measures, Dr. King argues that true freedom will mean very little to Black Americans because they won’t be able to do anything with that freedom.
Dr. King goes on to acknowledge the important influence that the president of the United States has on civil rights issues. If President Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, Dr. King believes he would have grown into an even stronger ally for racial justice. As it stands, his assassination showed the nation that “hate is a contagion” and that nobody in a society besieged by such hatred is safe. Black Americans, for their part, are all too familiar with the tragedy brought about by political assassinations, as many prominent Black leaders have been targeted and killed by white supremacists. When President Kennedy was assassinated, though, it was perhaps the first time that the nation grieved an act of hatred together.
President Kennedy’s assassination sparked a sense of collective grief and mourning. Dr. King points out that this grief was directly tied to an act of hatred, which is why he feels it was so similar to the kind of violence that the Black community faces on a daily basis in the United States. In other words, Kennedy’s assassination forced a sense of unity in a moment of grief, and Dr. King points this out because it proves that the rest of the country is capable of recognizing the terrible injustice of hateful, violent acts—and should, therefore, recognize that the same kind of violence plagues the Black community.
Many of Dr. King’s associates urged him to publicly endorse President Kennedy when he first ran for office. He refrained, however, because he wasn’t sure that Kennedy would fight for Black Americans with as much vigor as they would hope. Most presidents, after all, had failed to address racism in the country. For this reason, Dr. King says, Black Americans historically stayed away from politics, especially since there were never many candidates who would act on matters of racial justice anyway. Because Black Americans kept away from politics, though, they were unable to assert their influence. By 1964, however, the civil rights movement made it possible—through nonviolent direct action—for Black people to become more politically active.
Black Americans had good reason to stay away from politics in the 1950s and early 1960s, considering that very few politicians were willing to genuinely push for racial equality. But Dr. King notes that staying out of politics also disenfranchised the Black community by ensuring that Black Americans would be unrepresented in the government. With the onset of the civil rights movement, though, it became increasingly possible for Black people to influence their representatives, largely because nonviolent direct action gave the community a way of wielding power and using it to its political advantage.
Now that Black Americans have gained more political power, Dr. King is optimistic about how they might wield it. In fact, President Kennedy owed his victory in South Carolina to the Black vote, indicating that the Black community can tangibly impact the outcome of a given political race. Plus, politicians bear such matters in mind, not wanting to alienate groups that have such a strong sway over election results. In turn, if the Black community acts strategically, it would be possible to leverage its influence as a way of making sure its voice is heard.
In terms of the best way to fight injustice, Dr. King has already committed himself to the use of nonviolent direct action. However, he has also made it clear that he doesn’t think just one approach is good enough when it comes to addressing racial inequality. For instance, he also believes in the efficacy of fighting injustice in the courts. And now he adds yet another approach, advocating for the use of voting power to assert influence over politicians. Combining all three of these approaches would give the civil rights movement a comprehensive way of combatting hatred and division.
Dr. King reiterates that the civil rights movement isn’t just an effort to uplift Black people—it’s an effort to uplift the entire nation. In the same way that it’s sometimes necessary for a doctor to open a wound to address an infection, the nation must confront the inequality festering at its core. If the civil rights movement manages to address this issue, then it will have managed to improve the nation’s overall unity. And nonviolent direct action, Dr. King argues, is the way to achieve this unity. After all, he believes that everyone in the world—regardless of their differences—must learn to “live together in peace.”
Why We Can’t Wait ends with Dr. King reiterating his belief in nonviolence and its ability to bring about meaningful change—change that the nation desperately needs. He also underscores the idea that equality would benefit the whole country, implying that anything that helps the nation become a more moral and just place is something that will greatly improve the United States as a whole.