Why We Can’t Wait highlights how challenging it was for civil rights leaders to combat the nation’s complacency surrounding racial inequality in the 1950s and ’60s. Dr. King makes it clear that the country’s white population was quite unmotivated to pursue change, instead feeling content with the idea of maintaining the status quo, which meant preserving a strict and unjust racial hierarchy. As Black Americans suffered as a result of racism and segregation, many white people refused to think critically about the situation. For example, Dr. King notes that many segregationists in the South used to claim that Black people were perfectly “satisfied.” They would justify this opinion by saying that they had spoken to their Black employees (for instance, a personal chef or a maid) and asked them to voice their opinions. Inevitably, the Black employees said whatever the segregationist wanted to hear, but that was only because voicing their real opinions might get them fired or even put them in danger. Although it should have been obvious that Black employees wouldn’t answer such questions honestly, Dr. King’s anecdote illustrates just how ignorant and self-serving many white people were when it came to thinking about inequality. To address the apathy surrounding the issue, then, Dr. King and his allies turned to nonviolent direct action, which “dramatize[d] the issue” by highlighting the police’s aggressive tactics against peaceful Black citizens—something that finally captured the nation’s attention and, in doing so, paved the path toward desegregation. By showing how necessary it was to “dramatize the issue,” Dr. King implies that shaking the nation out of complacency was one of the most important steps in the entire civil rights movement.
Dr. King maintains that white complacency was perhaps the biggest obstacle to achieving racial justice and equality. The idea that Black people ought to somehow make do with their circumstances was pervasive among white people in the early 1960s, making it clear just how out of touch white Americans were with the struggles Black people faced. Instead of putting themselves in the shoes of Black Americans, most white people prioritized the smooth functioning of society and the preservation of “order” above all else. The open letter that eight white clergymen penned in opposition to the Birmingham protests is a perfect illustration of the white population’s failure to empathize with the civil rights movement. Dr. King responded with his own letter, in which he criticizes the white clergymen for their inability—or unwillingness—to recognize the hatred and danger that Black people have to deal with on a daily basis. It is exactly this kind of complacency and ignorance, he suggests, that has preserved segregation and racism for so long. In fact, he even argues that “moderate” white people (who are neither civil rights activists nor staunch segregationists) pose more of a threat to racial equality than extremist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, since they tacitly endorse racist practices while acting guiltless and reasonable, making it that much harder to challenge unjust policies.
The most dangerous thing about such complacency or apathy is that it keeps people from striving toward change. For example, most white people didn’t feel an urgent impetus to achieve equality because they weren’t personally affected by racism. Instead, many white people advocated for “gradualism,” which is the idea that society itself will slowly become more egalitarian and just over time. But “gradualism,” Dr. King argues, simply would not work. By 1963, Black Americans had been living under oppressive circumstances for so many years (entire centuries!) that it was unacceptable to consider having to wait any longer for justice. And yet, what made the complacency surrounding racial justice so difficult to combat was that it was deeply entrenched in the white community—so entrenched, in fact, that many white people somehow deluded themselves into thinking that Black people were actually happy with their current circumstances. Such beliefs were based on unreliable anecdotes in which racist white people manipulated their own positions of power to get Black people to tell them exactly what they wanted to hear: namely, that segregation was a perfectly agreeable arrangement and that change wasn’t necessary. However, Dr. King emphasizes that the very same Black people who felt obligated to say such things also took part in demonstrations against segregation. Segregationists were thus going out of their way to reinforce an obviously untenable belief system. In a way, then, white complacency wasn’t necessarily the result of ignorance, but an intentional attempt to dodge reality in the hopes of preserving a worldview with glaring moral flaws.
Because white Americans were so tied to complacent ideas surrounding racial inequality, it was necessary to shock the country out of its apathetic ways. To do so, Dr. King and his fellow organizers used nonviolent direct action as a way of spotlighting just how cruel and aggressive police officers were when dealing with peaceful protestors. Images of vicious dogs biting innocent children and police officers using pressure hoses on nonviolent demonstrators went out in newspapers across the country, making it much harder for white people to convince themselves that Black Americans were happy with the way things were. By attracting attention to the sheer violence and hatred aimed at nonviolent Black people, the movement forced white America to reckon with its own willful complacency, challenging anyone with a conscience to abandon indefensible views supporting segregation. In doing so, the leaders of the civil rights movement demonstrated Dr. King’s idea that freedom “must be demanded by the oppressed” because it’s “never voluntarily given by the oppressor”—if Dr. King and other activists hadn’t “demanded” freedom by forcing white Americans out of their complacent viewpoints, there’s no telling how long segregation would have lasted in the United States.
Complacency, Ignorance, and the Status Quo ThemeTracker
Complacency, Ignorance, and the Status Quo Quotes in Why We Can’t Wait
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 […].
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.
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.