Monday, March 7, 2016

Book Review: Why We Can't Wait, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why We Can't Wait
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Trade Paperback, 193 pages
Beacon Press (Reissue Edition)
January 11, 2011
Classics, African-American Studies, American History, Civil Rights Movement, Memoir, Nonfiction, Politics, Social Justice

Book Synopsis

Dr. King’s best-selling account of the civil rights movement in Birmingham during the spring and summer of 1963.

Often applauded as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most incisive and eloquent book, Why We Can’t Wait recounts the Birmingham campaign in vivid detail, while underscoring why 1963 was such a crucial year for the civil rights movement. During this time, Birmingham, Alabama, was perhaps the most racially segregated city in the United States, but the campaign launched by Fred Shuttlesworth, King, and others demonstrated to the world the power of nonviolent direct action. King examines the history of the civil rights struggle and the tasks that future generations must accomplish to bring about full equality. The book also includes the extraordinary “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which King wrote in April of 1963.

My Review

This was the first book by the great civil rights leader that I have ever read, and it was not only brilliantly-written, but evocative and poignant. It's not only a detailed narration of facts, but an incisive exposition of the African-American soul.

There are two introductions. The first was written by Dorothy F. Cotton, who was the Education Director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the time, and worked closely with Dr. King.

The second introduction was written by King, and is an unforgettable picture of the abject conditions of many African-Americans in a segregated society. It's heart-breaking reading, and also feels like the beginning of a novel. Had he wanted to write fiction, I believe Dr. King would have done a brilliant job; he was as eloquent a writer as he was an orator.

King's central theme in this powerful book is that the year 1963 was a very significant one for the American Negro, as it marked the 100-year anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. He found it highly ironic that conditions for African-Americans had not changed all that much in the years since President Lincoln signed this famous document. In eloquent, visceral prose, he paints a picture of what he terms "The Negro Revolution: "Why was it this year that the American Negro, so long ignored, so long written out of the pages of history books, tramped a declaration of freedom with his marching feet across the pages of newspapers, the television screens and the magazines?" (pg. 8) 

King decried the slow pace of integration in Southern schools, despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that ordered integration be implemented as quickly as possible. The Supreme Court itself contradicted its own ruling by approving the Pupil Placement Law, which "....permitted the states themselves to determine where school children might be placed by virtue of family background, special ability and other subjective criteria." (pg. 10) This law had the unsurprising effect of slowing down the process of school integration. 

One of the  important points made by the author was that conditions in the North were not much better; Negro victimization was simply more subtle. 

King's philosophy of nonviolence was rooted in his Christian beliefs; he was, after all, a Baptist pastor. In the second chapter of the book, he references the nonviolence of the early Christians, which eventually wore down the mighty Roman Empire. This was also the reason he opposed the Vietnam War, and was accused of being a Communist as a result. Although he makes no mention of this war in the book, I have done some research on the subject. King's contention was that the war against communism would be much better fought with the tools of democracy. 

Dr. King also admired the example of Ghandi's nonviolent movement, which eventually brought about the end of British colonialism in India. 

In pointing out these examples -- he also referenced the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee -- the author emphasizes that the philosophy of nonviolence goes against the grain of what is considered "American manhood". He admits that this is not an easy philosophy to follow and implement; however, he insists that it takes as much bravery as the easier, time-honored response of violent retaliation. According to Dr. King, the force of moral courage can be just as effective, if not more so, as the force of violence in achieving justice.

At the time King wrote this book, segregation in many Southern cities was not limited to public schools, but extended into every area of public life. Lunch counters in stores and restaurants, for instance, were segregated. Water fountains and public restrooms were, as well. Even churches were segregated; African-Americans were not welcome in white churches. 

The segregationist authorities in Alabama had even succeeded in keeping the NAACP out of the state by declaring it "a foreign corporation", thus making its activities within the state illegal.

It was very obvious that the ugly hate of prejudice blanketed the South. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in Birmingham, Alabama, the city targeted by the civil rights movement as the one in which nonviolent demonstrations would be most effective. King called it "the most segregated city in America". In fact, he goes on to state that the city appeared to have been frozen in time. This was in large part due to George Wallace, the segregationist governor at the time. It was also in large part due to the then Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, Theophilus Eugene Connor, commonly known as "Bull" Connor. In the Wikipedia article about him, Connor is labeled as "a fascist and racist American politician". Ironically, he was a registered Democrat.

During the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Birmingham campaign, which King described in this book, Connor ordered the use of fire hoses, set to the highest pressure, against civil rights protesters. He also ordered that police attack dogs be let loose on them. Children were not excepted from these horrible tactics, and many were injured by the hoses and dogs. 

King recounts how the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who had organized the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in 1956, was himself knocked down by the force of the water from a fire hose during a demonstration. He was injured, and taken to the hospital. When told about this, Bull Connor expressed regret that Shuttlesworth had not been carried away in a hearse. Connor died in 1973; he will only be remembered as a hate-filled segregationist who was fortunately unsuccessful in detaining the inexorable movement of history toward full racial equality.

The activities of the movement involved marching, sit-ins, and singing freedom songs, as well as negotiations with the white city government and business owners of the city. Many of these owners had Jim Crow signs posted on their store windows, which King and his associates demanded be taken down. Other points of negotiation, with the business owners as well as city authorities were: better jobs for the African-American population, release of demonstrators jailed during the campaign, and ongoing "diplomatic relations" between black and white leaders. An agreement with the city government was finally reached on Friday, May 10, 1963, in which the government agreed to implement desegregation within 90 days.

Sadly, not long after this agreement was reached, an assassination attempt was made on King's life, by the local Ku Klux Klan. This resulted in violent rioting, and the National Guard was eventually brought in. The home of Dr. King's brother, the Rev. A.D. King, was also bombed. Fortunately, neither Dr. King nor his brother, or his brother's family, were injured in these attacks.

The book includes the famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail". This letter was King's reply to a public statement made by eight fellow clergymen in an Alabama newspaper. In responding to their criticism of the Birmingham campaign as "unwise and untimely", he emphasizes that they should be more concerned with the causes that brought about the demonstrations.

The most famous quote from the letter states: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." In the letter, King insists that people have a right to take nonviolent, direct action to oppose unjust legislation, rather than wait for the courts to decide the matter.

The book also describes the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Dr. King delivered his famous, and stirring, "I Have A Dream" speech. He was pleased by the participation of many white churches, but very disappointed with the lack of support from the AFL-CIO.

The book concludes with the hope that civil rights legislation will be the primary focus of the Johnson administration, and stresses another important theme -- African-Americans want those rights that are already theirs through the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Judeo-Christian moral values. King stated: "We need a powerful sense of determination to banish the ugly blemish of racism scarring the image of America." (pg. 152) He further stated: "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." (pg. 153)

This book is a work of immense power, as well as of dignity, honor, and beauty. It reflects the greatness of a people shaking off the shackles of psychological slavery to stand tall, proud, and free, as members of a pluralistic society that needs their valuable input, their integrity, their commitment to American democratic values. In short, this book is a testament to the inviolability and greatness of the human spirit, and should be read by everyone who holds such values dear. I give it five stars, although it really deserves ten!  

About the Author

(From Goodreads)

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the pivotal leaders of the American civil rights movement. King was a Baptist minister, one of the few leadership roles available to black men at the time. He became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956) and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957), serving as its first president. His efforts led to the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Here he raised public consciousness of the civil rights movement and established himself as one of the greatest orators in U.S. history. In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other non-violent means.

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a national holiday in the United States in 1986. In 2004, King was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.


Brian Joseph said...

This is a great post Maria.

I really need to read this book.

You bring up so many important points here.

It is interesting that King referenced To kill a Mockingbird. Lately some critics who support civil rights have been a little critical of the work. They have contended that it was too White patriarchal in nature. I wonder if they are aware of King's commentary.

In regards to the Democrats of the time, many were vicious racists and segregationists. More so then the most strident Republicans of our time.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Thanks so much!! :)

There are indeed many important points about this book. It really is a MUST read for anyone who cares about civil rights!

I was surprised to see that King mentioned "To Kill A Mockingbird", as I am aware of the criticisms against the book. I myself had been wondering if this book was, in fact, racist. From what I remember of it, as well as of the movie, all the attention is on Atticus Finch, and what a noble, fair-minded man he was. The novel also extols Finch's clever strategy to prove that Tom, the accused man, was not guilty. But, as one critic of the novel has pointed out, the reader really doesn't know much about Tom and his family. The whole focus of the book is on Atticus Finch and his children. So I can see where the accusations of white patriarchal values are coming from.

Perhaps King mentioned the novel because it was the only one, at the time, that made any mention of racial prejudice and its deadly effects.

Here's the exact quote in which King mentions "To Kill A Mockingbird":

"Yet there is something in the American ethos that responds to the strength of moral force. I am reminded of the popular and widely respected novel and film "To Kill A Mockingbird". Atticus Finch, a white southern lawyer, confronts a group of his neighbors who have become a lynch-crazed mob, seeking the life of his Negro client. Finch, armed with nothing more lethal than a lawbook, disperses the mob with the force of his moral courage, aided by his small daughter, who, innocently calling the would-be lynchers by name, reminds them that they are individual men, not a pack of beasts." (pp. 34 & 35)

I remember this incident very well, especially the scene in the movie. It was very powerful indeed. The quote above is the only one about Harper Lee's novel. I can see why King would mention it. But I can also see why literary critics and others have criticized the book. The novel makes Finch out to be a hero. But how many white men(or women, for that matter) like Finch existed in the real world at the time the novel was published? And why does Tom Robinson, the accused man, remain such a shadowy figure in the novel? He's merely a symbol. Maybe this was intentional on Lee's part, but still. This man had been falsely accused of raping a white woman. Surely we the readers should have known more about him.

I need to re-read "To Kill A Mockingbird", as well as see the movie again, just to pinpoint exactly what the critics are referring to. But I can understand why they would criticize it, and again, am surprised that King referenced it.

As for the Democrats of the time being segregationists, that was a HUGE shock to me!! And even more than today's Republicans?! I guess I need to read more about American History!

Thanks for the great comment!! :)