Why We Can’t Wait

by

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The White Clergymen Symbol Analysis

The White Clergymen Symbol Icon

The eight white clergymen who publicly criticized Dr. King and the Birmingham campaign represent the ignorance and complacency that the civil rights movement had to face from the white community in the 1950s and 1960s. Although these clergymen were religious leaders who supposedly possessed strong moral compasses and cared about diminishing human suffering, they condemned the civil rights movement and its push for equality. In his response to their criticism, Dr. King points out their hypocrisy and expresses disappointment that they didn’t stand with the civil rights movement and support its attempts to fight injustice. In particular, their complaint that the Birmingham campaign was poorly timed is indicative of just how unmotivated and naïve many white people were at the time—even though Black Americans had been suffering and waiting for freedom for hundreds of years, white people like the clergymen tried to argue that Black people should continue to wait patiently for change to come. The fact that such a callous and unempathetic viewpoint came from a group of religious leaders underscores the extent to which white Americans resisted any kind of progress toward racial equality; if even people who were supposed to believe in things like justice and compassion couldn’t see the urgent need for change, then it’s clear that the civil rights movement had quite a lot of work to do in order to get through to the rest of the white population.

The White Clergymen Quotes in Why We Can’t Wait

The Why We Can’t Wait quotes below all refer to the symbol of The White Clergymen. 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:
History, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
). 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 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:
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The White Clergymen Symbol Timeline in Why We Can’t Wait

The timeline below shows where the symbol The White Clergymen appears in Why We Can’t Wait. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 5: Letter from Birmingham Jail
Religion, Morality, and Hope Theme Icon
Complacency, Ignorance, and the Status Quo Theme Icon
In a letter addressed to eight white clergymen who condemned his activism in Birmingham, Dr. King notes that he rarely responds to criticism... (full context)
History, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
Complacency, Ignorance, and the Status Quo Theme Icon
Dr. King points out that the white clergymen condemn the Birmingham demonstrations without condemning the conditions that made such measures necessary in the... (full context)
History, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
Unity, Community Organizing, and Leadership Theme Icon
Complacency, Ignorance, and the Status Quo Theme Icon
Dr. King assures the white clergymen that he and his associates took painstaking measures to ensure that the participants in åtheir... (full context)
History, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
Unity, Community Organizing, and Leadership Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Hope Theme Icon
Complacency, Ignorance, and the Status Quo Theme Icon
Dr. King also takes issue with the white clergymen ’s suggestion that his methods are “extreme.” In reality, the SCLC falls somewhere in the... (full context)
History, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
Unity, Community Organizing, and Leadership Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Hope Theme Icon
Complacency, Ignorance, and the Status Quo Theme Icon
Dr. King reminds the white clergymen of a time when the church acted as an agent of change. He doesn’t see... (full context)
Complacency, Ignorance, and the Status Quo Theme Icon
...two reasons why this idea is misguided. First of all, Dr. King argues that the white clergymen clearly must not have seen the violent and aggressive tactics that the police use against... (full context)
History, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
Complacency, Ignorance, and the Status Quo Theme Icon
Instead of praising the Birmingham police force, Dr. King wishes the white clergymen had praised the Black activists for their courage and restraint in the face of injustice.... (full context)
History, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
Unity, Community Organizing, and Leadership Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Hope Theme Icon
...the conditions that led to his arrest. He then expresses a desire to meet the white clergymen who criticized him and his fellow activists. He doesn’t want to talk to them as... (full context)