Why We Can’t Wait

by

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) Character Analysis

The author of Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a prominent leader of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. A Baptist minister from Georgia, he believed in the power of nonviolence and helped popularize the use of nonviolent direct action as a means of addressing racism and inequality. He outlines the many benefits of nonviolent direct action in Why We Can’t Wait, explaining how he and other civil rights leaders used it in a large-scale campaign for desegregation and racial equality in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Although he was adamant that Black Americans couldn’t wait any longer for true freedom, he was willing to negotiate with powerful white community leaders—as long as they negotiated in good faith. While other movements (like the Nation of Islam) advocated for a total withdrawal of Black Americans from white culture, Dr. King wanted to work toward a unified nation. Part of his hopefulness surrounding the possibility of achieving harmony between the races was rooted in his overall outlook on life. As a minister who believed in the value of love and fellowship, he maintained a strong sense of faith and optimism about humankind’s ability to come together. He is perhaps best remembered for his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Washington, which brought almost 250,000 people to the nation’s capital in a call for racial equality. He was assassinated in 1968.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) Quotes in Why We Can’t Wait

The Why We Can’t Wait quotes below are all either spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) or refer to Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King). For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Signet edition of Why We Can’t Wait published in 2000.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“If you had sneezed during all those hours of waiting," Dr. Maynard said, “your aorta would have been punctured and you would have drowned in your own blood."

In the summer of 1963 the knife of violence was just that close to the nation's aorta. Hundreds of cities might now be mourning countless dead but for the operation of certain forces which gave political surgeons an opportunity to cut boldly and safely to remove the deadly peril.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

There was another factor in the slow pace of progress, a factor of which few are aware and even fewer understand. It is an unadvertised fact that soon after the 1954 decision the Supreme Court retreated from its own position by giving approval to the Pupil Placement Law. This law permitted the states themselves to determine where school children might be placed by virtue of family background, special ability and other subjective criteria.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 6-7
Explanation and Analysis:

While the Negro is not so selfish as to stand isolated in concern for his own dilemma, ignoring the ebb and flow of events around the world, there is a certain bitter irony in the picture of his country championing freedom in foreign lands and failing to ensure that freedom to twenty million of its own.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

The pen of the Great Emancipator had moved the Negro into the sunlight of physical freedom, but actual conditions had left him behind in the shadow of political, psychological, social, economic and intellectual bondage. In the South, discrimination faced the Negro in its obvious and glaring forms. In the North, it confronted him in hidden and subtle disguise.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker), Abraham Lincoln
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

The average Negro is born into want and deprivation. His struggle to escape his circumstances is hindered by color discrimination. He is deprived of normal education and normal social and economic opportunities. When he seeks opportunity, he is told, in effect, to lift himself by his own bootstraps, advice which does not take into account the fact that he is barefoot.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Nonviolent direct action did not originate in America, but it found its natural home in this land, where refusal to cooperate with injustice was an ancient and honorable tradition and where Christian forgiveness was written into the minds and hearts of good men.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

It is important to understand, first of all, that the Revolution is not indicative of a sudden loss of patience within the Negro. The Negro had never really been patient in the pure sense of the word. The posture of silent waiting was forced upon him psychologically because he was shackled physically.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

White people in the South may never fully know the extent to which Negroes defended themselves and protected their jobs—and, in many cases, their lives—by perfecting an air of ignorance and agreement. In days gone by, no cook would have dared to tell her employer what he ought to know. She had to tell him what he wanted to hear. She knew that the penalty for speaking the truth could be loss of her job.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

When, for decades, you have been able to make a man compromise his manhood by threatening him with a cruel and unjust punishment, and when suddenly he turns upon you and says: “Punish me. I do not deserve it. But because I do not deserve it, I will accept it so that the world will know that I am right and you are wrong," you hardly know what to do. You feel defeated and secretly ashamed. You know that this man is as good a man as you are; that from some mysterious source he has found the courage and the conviction to meet physical force with soul force.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

A judge here and a judge there; an executive behind a polished desk in a carpeted office; a high government administrator with a toehold on a cabinet post; one student in a Mississippi university lofted there by an army; three Negro children admitted to the whole high-school system of a major city—all these were tokens used to obscure the persisting reality of segregation and discrimination.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 22-23
Explanation and Analysis:

Those who argue in favor of tokenism point out that we must begin somewhere; that it is unwise to spurn any breakthrough, no matter how limited. This position has a certain validity, and the Negro freedom movement has more often than not attained broad victories which had small beginnings. There is a critical distinction, however, between a modest start and tokenism. The tokenism Negroes condemn is recognizable because it is an end in itself. Its purpose is not to begin a process, but instead to end the process of protest and pressure. It is a hypocritical gesture, not a constructive first step.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

If he is still saying, “Not enough,” it is because he does not feel that he should be expected to be grateful for the halting and inadequate attempts of his society to catch up with the basic rights he ought to have inherited automatically centuries ago, by virtue of his membership in the human family and his American birthright.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Perhaps even more vital in the Negro's resistance to violence was the force of his deeply rooted spiritual beliefs. In Montgomery after a courageous woman, Rosa Parks, had refused to move to the back of the bus, and so began the revolt that led to the boycott of 1955-56, the Negro's developing campaign against that city's racial injustice was based in the churches of the community. Throughout the South, for some years prior to Montgomery, the Negro church had emerged with increasing impact in the civil-rights struggle. Negro ministers, with a growing awareness that the true witness of a Christian life is the projection of a social gospel, had accepted leadership in the fight for racial justice […].

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

The eye-for-an-eye philosophy, the impulse to defend oneself when attacked, has always been held as the highest measure of American manhood. We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice. It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or that to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

Certainly Birmingham had its decent white citizens who privately deplored the maltreatment of Negroes. But they remained publicly silent. It was a silence born of fear—fear of social, political and economic reprisals. The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

In a sense the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America. They are adaptations of the songs the slaves sang—the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. […] We sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that “We shall overcome, Black and white together, We shall overcome someday.”

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Freedom Songs
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

The amazing aftermath of Birmingham, the sweeping Negro Revolution, revealed to people all over the land that there are no outsiders in all these fifty states of America. When a police dog buried his fangs in the ankle of a small child in Birmingham, he buried his fangs in the ankle of every American. The bell of man's inhumanity to man does not toll for any one man. It tolls for you, for me, for all of us.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

I sat in the midst of the deepest quiet I have ever felt, with two dozen others in the room. There comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come face to face with himself. I was alone in that crowded room.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Related Symbols: The White Clergymen
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well-timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Related Symbols: The White Clergymen
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice […].

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the star of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade.

[…]

It was upon this massive base of racism that the prejudice toward the nonwhite was readily built, and found rapid growth.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 146-147
Explanation and Analysis:

For the first time millions listened to the informed and thoughtful words of Negro spokesmen, from all walks of life. The stereotype of the Negro suffered a heavy blow. This was evident in some of the comment, which reflected surprise at the dignity, the organization and even the wearing apparel and friendly spirit of the participants.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

We can, of course, try to temporize, negotiate small, inadequate changes and prolong the timetable of freedom in the hope that the narcotics of delay will dull the pain of progress. We can try, but we shall certainly fail. The shape of the world will not permit us the luxury of gradualism and procrastination. Not only is it immoral, it will not work. It will not work because Negroes know they have the right to be free. It will not work because Negroes have discovered, in nonviolent direct action, an irresistible force to propel what has been for so long an immovable object. It will not work because it retards the progress not only of the Negro, but of the nation as a whole.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) (speaker)
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:
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Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) Character Timeline in Why We Can’t Wait

The timeline below shows where the character Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dr. King) appears in Why We Can’t Wait. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction
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Martin Luther King, Jr. , describes a young Black boy sitting in front of a run-down apartment in Harlem.... (full context)
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...community members. Despite the extreme prejudice they face, they remain undeterred. Why We Can’t Wait , Dr. King notes, is a story about their courage and its power to change the entire nation. (full context)
Chapter 1: The Negro Revolution—Why 1963?
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...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.”  (full context)
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Several years ago , Dr. King was in Harlem signing books when he felt a sharp pain in his chest. Looking... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Dr. King also notes that any discussion of racial equality should take the bigger picture of international... (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
Chapter 2: The Sword That Heals
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Dr. King believes in the power of nonviolent direct action because it neutralizes the threats that have... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Dr. King reviews the various approaches that prominent Black leaders have taken in the past to address... (full context)
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...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. (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Dr. King explains that some people urged Black Americans to unite with poor white people in the... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Dr. King thinks of the Birmingham movement in 1963 as a nonviolent “army.” One benefit of a... (full context)
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Dr. King considers why it took so long for Black Americans to embrace nonviolent direct action. One... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 3: Bull Connor’s Birmingham
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...city. The ACHR was part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), whose president was Dr. King . The ACHR made great strides, winning a court case to desegregate public-recreation buildings. In... (full context)
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Dr. King and the SCLC decided in 1962 to help Fred Shuttlesworth and the ACHR. Shuttlesworth had... (full context)
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Planning the direct-action campaign in Birmingham , Dr. King and other leaders held a three-day retreat at a training center in Savannah, Georgia. During... (full context)
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After the three-day retreat , Dr. King and his associates went to Birmingham to make plans. They stayed in Room 30 of... (full context)
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However , Dr. King and his associates soon remembered there was a local election taking place on March 5th.... (full context)
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By the beginning of March , Dr. King ’s associates had recruited 250 volunteers to take part in demonstrations. But then the election... (full context)
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In the meantime , Dr. King went to New York City with Shuttlesworth. They knew they would need support once the... (full context)
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...Harry Belafonte’s apartment, the movement received support from multiple organizations. The NAACP even raised $75,000. Dr. King returned to Birmingham on April 2nd and started reconnecting with the 250 volunteers from the... (full context)
Chapter 4: New Day in Birmingham
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Dr. King , Shuttlesworth, and Abernathy made it very clear to volunteers that they were only welcome... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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,... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Dr. King and his associates had talked from the very beginning about the possible need to use... (full context)
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Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy planned to be the first ones to practice civil disobedience. The plan... (full context)
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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.... (full context)
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Dr. King asked Abernathy to join him, and Abernathy didn’t hesitate. The next day, they marched from... (full context)
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In jail , Dr. King and Abernathy were separated. Dr. King was put into solitary confinement, where he stayed for... (full context)
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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,... (full context)
Chapter 5: Letter from Birmingham Jail
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In a letter addressed to eight white clergymen who condemned his activism in Birmingham , Dr. King notes that he rarely responds to criticism but that, because he respects these clergymen, he’s... (full context)
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On a broader level , Dr. King has come to Birmingham because the city is full of “injustice.” He sees it as... (full context)
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Dr. King points out that the white clergymen condemn the Birmingham demonstrations without condemning the conditions that... (full context)
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There is no denying that Birmingham is full of racism and inequality. Dr. King mentions the city’s segregation, its police brutality against Black people, its unjust legal proceedings, and... (full context)
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Dr. King assures the white clergymen that he and his associates took painstaking measures to ensure that... (full context)
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Some of Dr. King ’s critics have suggested that the movement has come at a bad time. They think... (full context)
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Dr. King is very conscious of the fact that the movement decided to break the law by... (full context)
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Dr. King considers how, exactly, it’s possible to deem a law unjust. Any law, he says, that... (full context)
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Dr. King has some criticisms of his own to voice. He condemns white moderates for their passive... (full context)
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Dr. King also takes issue with the white clergymen’s suggestion that his methods are “extreme.” In reality,... (full context)
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Dr. King is disappointed in white Christians—especially ministers. He mistakenly thought they would—as Christians—understand and support the... (full context)
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Dr. King reminds the white clergymen of a time when the church acted as an agent of... (full context)
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Although Dr. King hopes that the Christian church will rise to the occasion by supporting the movement in... (full context)
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Before closing , Dr. King notes that white leaders have celebrated the Birmingham police for maintaining order and “preventing violence.”... (full context)
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Instead of praising the Birmingham police force , Dr. King wishes the white clergymen had praised the Black activists for their courage and restraint in... (full context)
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Dr. King acknowledges that he has penned a very long letter, but he adds that he is,... (full context)
Chapter 6: Black and White Together
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After eight days in jail , Dr. King and Abernathy were released on bail. They accepted bail so that Dr. King could reconnect... (full context)
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...people in the movement was that it made it possible to “fill up the jails.” Dr. King and his fellow leaders decided that May 2nd would be a “‘D’ Day” of sorts—a... (full context)
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...movement. They didn’t support it, either, but they didn’t use violence to stop it, and Dr. King believes that this sense of “neutrality” helped the movement gain momentum and success. (full context)
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...they were free to go. Although most of the demonstrators were cited for criminal contempt , Dr. King and his fellow leaders were cited for civil contempt. But it soon became clear to... (full context)
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Dr. King and his associates wanted to have an open dialogue with the leaders of Birmingham. They... (full context)
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Dr. King and other leaders of the movement met with the influential white figures of Birmingham. After... (full context)
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...day after the pact was announced, white supremacists lashed out by bombing the home of Dr. King ’s brother, A. D. King. They also bombed the Gaston Motel, not knowing that Dr.... (full context)
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In Atlanta , Dr. King received a call from his brother, who told him about the bombings in Birmingham. And... (full context)
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...participated in demonstrations. Although some people in the movement wanted to respond by resuming demonstrations , Dr. King urged them to refrain. Instead, they took the matter up in court with the help... (full context)
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At the time of writing Why We Can’t Wait in 1964 , Dr. King says that there’s still work to be done in Birmingham. There are still many people... (full context)
Chapter 7: The Summer of Our Discontent
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Until the summer of 1963 , Dr. King argues, Black Americans had so little support in American society that there was a prevailing... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Although it would be nice if Dr. King could say that the victory in Birmingham led to lasting peace and equality, that’s not... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Dr. King points out that, although many people view the movement as something that has burdened the... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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.... (full context)
Chapter 8: The Days to Come
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Dr. King considers American society’s troubling tendency to remain indifferent in the face of “human suffering.” During... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Dr. King argues that the government should provide Black Americans with financial assistance as a way of... (full context)
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Dr. King goes on to acknowledge the important influence that the president of the United States has... (full context)
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Many of Dr. King ’s associates urged him to publicly endorse President Kennedy when he first ran for office.... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Dr. King reiterates that the civil rights movement isn’t just an effort to uplift Black people—it’s an... (full context)