Martin Luther King, Jr., describes a young Black boy sitting in front of a run-down apartment in Harlem. It’s 1963, and the boy’s building smells of garbage. Few of the adults in his life have jobs, and many of them have developed substance-abuse issues. Dr. King also describes a young Black girl sitting before a dilapidated house in Birmingham. Like the boy, she has to fend for herself—her mother died in a car accident, and though she could have been saved, it took too long to get her to the all-Black hospital. Although the young boy and girl are separated by many miles, they both wonder the same thing: why is life so miserable for Black people in the United States?
Dr. King opens Why We Can’t Wait by underlining the fact that segregation isn’t a harmless policy. Rather, it has a direct impact on human lives, as made evident by the story about the Black girl’s mother who died because she couldn’t simply go to the white hospital. By beginning with a spotlight on these two Black children, Dr. King invites readers to consider the real-life impact of racist policies.
The history books taught in school don’t acknowledge that Black people played a huge role in establishing the success of the United States. The first soldier to die in the American Revolution, for instance, was a freed Black man. Although American schools don’t teach this history, the young boy and girl living in poverty know that Black people played an important role in the founding of the country. They also know that, although Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years ago, true racial equality has yet to come.
The lack of a comprehensive and accurate historical education in American school systems is a product of racism, as curricula fail to recognize that Black Americans were integral to the nation’s overall success. Instead of talking about the debt that the country owes to its Black citizens (many of whom were enslaved), history books focus on white figures who brought about change. Historical education veers away from recognizing the contributions of Black Americans because doing so would mean reckoning with an ugly past—a past many white Americans are all too eager to forget. Dr. King calls attention to this willful ignorance as a way of highlighting the nation’s overall complacency when it comes to acknowledging its flaws and working toward change.
Although the rest of the country prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the young Black children are painfully aware that the nation is still mired in racism and hatred. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation is illegal, but white supremacists have interfered throughout the South, ensuring that society has remained largely separated by race. Still, though, the two young Black children stand in unison—despite the great distance between them—and take a hopeful step forward, ready to advocate for themselves and for their 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.
Even as it lays out the many obstacles and hardships facing the Black community, the book’s opening is tinged with a sense of hope, as Dr. King suggests that the young Black children are ready to do whatever it takes to achieve racial equality. His focus on children is especially important, since they represent the future of the nation. What’s more, it will later become clear that young people played an instrumental role in the civil rights movement.