In Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King, Jr., examines the historical forces that drove the civil rights movement in 1963. In particular, he focuses on the 100 years between 1863 and 1963, a period in which Black Americans technically gained freedom from slavery but still faced racist limitations in essentially every area of life. Because of Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in the South, Black southerners were cut off from the resources necessary for attaining success. Dr. King notes that even in 1963—a full century after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation—the average Black child in the South was “deprived of normal education and normal social and economic opportunities.” As a result, it was nearly impossible for young Black people to find good jobs. Worse, even if their education had prepared them for the workforce, they wouldn’t have been able to find decent positions because rewarding, stable jobs were only open to white people. By outlining this unfortunate fact, Dr. King highlights the cycles of racism and disenfranchisement that historically made it difficult for Black Americans to succeed in the 100 years after 1863. In doing so, he shows that the strong push for desegregation and racial equality in 1963 wasn’t sudden or random—it didn’t just come out of nowhere, as some white people thought. Rather, the yearning for true freedom in the Black community was more than 100 years in the making, which is why the need for real change was so pressing and urgent during the pivotal year of 1963.
To understand the sense of urgency that defined the civil rights movement in 1963, Dr. King argues, it’s necessary to understand the history of racism and oppression in the United States. In the South, Jim Crow laws ensured the legal continuation of racism. These laws enforced segregation long after the Emancipation Proclamation had declared that the government should do nothing to “repress” Black Americans. Even after slavery, then, Black people were forced to wait for true equality. Because freedom was so long in the making, Dr. King argues that the majority of white Americans came to see Black Americans as people who could “quietly endure, silently suffer and patiently wait.” In other words, a sense of complacency overtook the United States, as white people failed to understand that half-freedom isn’t really freedom at all—or, in Dr. King’s words, “it is no more possible to be half free than it is to be half alive.”
Because many white people overlooked the country’s ongoing, systemic oppression of Black people, they also tended to invest too much importance in small, isolated steps toward equality. Dr. King explains that this tendency is called “tokenism,” which refers to the act of making symbolic gestures to address racial inequality. For example, because a select few Black Americans gained small amounts of success, many white people felt as if society had achieved true equality—even though the success of just a few Black people did little to help the rest of the Black population. Similarly, although the 1954 Supreme Court decision to outlaw school segregation seemed like a monumental step, it didn’t actually bring about much change. In reality, the ruling only affected roughly nine percent of Black students in the South, largely because the Supreme Court also passed the Pupil Placement Law, which allowed states to determine which schools students attended based on “subjective” matters, making it easy for racist whites to maintain school segregation. As a result of continued segregation, Black students didn’t have access to the kind of education that would prepare them for success in the workforce. This problem made it even harder for Black people to get good, well-paid jobs (not to mention the fact that there weren’t any good jobs available to Black Americans in the first place). However, many white people ignored this pattern of oppression. Instead of thinking about ways to legitimately address inequality, the white population simply applauded itself for passing the 1954 ruling on segregation—a tokenized step toward equality that just delayed true progress.
Because so many white Americans failed to see (or care) that Black people were still living under extreme oppression, they were taken aback by the explosive call for change that occurred in 1963. And yet, the campaign for racial justice wasn’t explosive at all, Dr. King points out. Because white America had convinced itself that Black people were content to “patiently wait” for equality, when demonstrations broke out in Birmingham, white people thought the Black population had suddenly lost its patience. But Dr. King argues that Black Americans never truly had patience when it came to racial justice—they were just “forced” into a “posture of silent waiting.” History supports this point, considering that, 100 years after Abraham Lincoln declared it illegal for the government to “repress” Black Americans, Black people were still unable to fully participate in most aspects of daily life. Indeed, Black people living in Birmingham in 1963 couldn’t even sit down at a segregated lunch counter without putting themselves in danger. By underscoring that this kind of discrimination was still taking place 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. King shows how ridiculous it was for white people to dismiss the civil rights movement as “untimely” or unjustified. Spotlighting that the campaign for racial justice was rooted in a long history of oppression, Dr. King emphasizes that the call for equality in 1963 was not only justified and well-deserved, but deeply urgent and inevitable, too.
History, Progress, and Change ThemeTracker
History, Progress, and Change 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.
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.
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.
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 […].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.