Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King’s account of the 1963 Birmingham nonviolent direct action campaign against segregated businesses is not really a historical or even a narrative work. Its purpose isn’t to describe what happened. It is not addressed to people like me, sitting at a remove of fifty years from those events.

No, this book was published in 1963. It came right just a few months after the March on Washington–the point that marks the end of our conventional narratives of the civil rights struggle. In this book, King is clearly speaking to a contemporary and mostly white audience. And the bulk of the book is devoted to answering the titular question. Time and again he steps out of the narrative to rebut various criticisms from contemporaries who said that his movement was too militant, too extreme, too impractical, too disorganized, too out-of-touch with ordinary people, too disengaged from the political process.

Reading this book, it’s kind of a shock to be transported into a time before the historicization of the Civil Rights Movement. Every American of my generation (and most Americans of all the other generations) believe that Martin Luther King is a demigod and that the nonviolent campaigns undertaken as part of the Civil Rights Movement comprise some of the most beautiful and courageous events in American history.

But back in the day, people weren’t so sure. And they were right to be skeptical. America had seen a hundred years of failure on the civil rights front. Men had grown up dreaming of equal rights, they had devoted their whole lives to trying to achieve that goal, and they had died without even approaching it. Even then, America’s political system was very good at taming, co-opting, and eventually destroying mass movements.

So yeah, I don’t blame them for nay-saying. If I’d been around back then (and if I’d been a white person), then I’m sure that I’d have been one of the nay-sayers. As King describes it, there’s a certain class of white moderate that believes strongly in order, even at the expense of justice. Intellectually, they believe in equality, but they’re viscerally terrified by disorder. They’re the ones who see television footage of people being assaulted by dogs and firehoses and decide that it’s the protesters who must be at fault.

Reading a book like this is a strange experience. While I was taught to venerate the Civil Rights movement, I was also basically taught that all that shit was over. I distinctly remember thinking, sometime in the late 90s, “Wow, it’s kind of a shame that there’s really no rights left to fight for.”

Of course I knew that this country had problems, but I didn’t think that any of those problems were so severe that they invalidated the moral authority of our government. America’s problems were problems of disagreement. Some people believed in one way of doing things and some other people believed in another way of doing things and the right and proper way to sort it all out was through the political process.

But I don’t believe that anymore. When America can unilaterally decide to murder people in other countries, that is an injustice which should not be left up to political debate. The people that we kill have no say in our decision-making process. It is simply horrific that I have a vote in whether a child in Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan gets to live or die.

It is the kind of situation that calls out for direct action. And for a significant fraction of the last year, there’ve been people around six blocks away from me, in Oakland, who’ve been trying to utilize direct action in order to end these, and other, injustices. I was definitely present at the right time and place to put King’s principles into action. I had the time, money, energy, and sympathy that could have motivated me to become more involved. And I did often consider becoming more involved. But I decided not to. My non-involvement was primarily based upon self-interest. I preferred to do spend my time on things that would directly benefit me. And I also don’t really want to be arrested.

But I noticed that many of my fellow upper-class liberals justify their non-involvement differently. They often make the same sort of critiques of the Occupy Campaign that their forebears about against King’s campaign. I have no doubt that these critiques are sincere, but I wonder about the extent to which they’re also a psychological defense mechanism.

They, like me, have been taught to view the Civil Rights Movement as the apotheosis of political action in this country. But we were never taught about the costs of participation. We were never taught about the kinds of risks people took. Or rather, we were taught about those risks, but we were taught about them in such a way as to make the risks seem laughably minor. Of course if you balance a short jail sentence or losing your job or catching a beating against achieving freedom and dignity for an entire people, then the risks seem wholly justified.

But in real life, that is never the calculation. In real life, you often lose your job or waste your time or get tear-gassed or acquire a criminal record…and have nothing at all to show for it. In real life, mass movements usually fail. And in some cases, that’s because of structural weakness, but, often, it’s just because the time wasn’t right.

It’s likely that the Occupy Movement will fail. It is likely that it–as is already happening to the Tea Party–will someday be seen as some strange historical curiosity. If that happens, then we will remember our criticisms and think with relief about how we were right.

But if it grows in power and moral authority, and someday succeeds, well…we’re going to be in the same position as those white moderates whose cowardice and hypocrisy was relentlessly decried by Dr. King.

5 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King Jr.

  1. John Arkwright

    I see huge differences in King and Occupy. King had a clear overarching goal–a colorblind legal system. On a great many issues, this standard yields decidable, predictable decisions. People could unite around it–and, as you say, many united against it.

    The Occupiers did not seem to have a goal. I heard outsiders on left and right try to discern or ascribe the true goal. I saw plenty of Occupiers on the news who wanted all kinds of stuff and many that didn’t know what they wanted. And there were plenty of them who lived in the middle of a big contradiction, as exemplified by the OWS GA meeting at which they realized that without capitalism they couldn’t survive, but they would try to minimize their contact with capitalism.

    There’s no way I’d take up a lot of time marching in protest of “?” Though, like you, I’m not the marching kind.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Hi John! It is always good to see a new commenter.

      I am not sure I can agree with you on King’s goals. He not only wanted a government that didn’t encourage discrimination, he also
      wanted a ban private discrimination. This is still fairly controversial and I imagine it was even more controversial at the time. Secondly, he also wanted some kind of economic program aimed at assisting blacks (and poor whites). He explicitly linked this demand to reparations for slavery and called it back wages for years of unpaid labor as slaves. This was also fairly controversial.

      I think that King’s message and the message of the civil rights movement as a whole has only taken on a kind of post facto clarity as years have passed. I have a strong suspicion that for people who were there, on the ground, things were not very clear at all.

      I think that Occupy is the same way. People are still deciding what they want. We have a tendency to want our political messages spoonfed to us, but with Occupy, we have a chance to go out and determine those messages for ourselves.

  2. Anonymous

    I thought a lot about joining the protesters, too. I decided not too because acquiring a criminal record would be too detrimental to my legal career. The amount of good I can do as a lawyer is a lot larger than what I can do as a protester.

    One of the basic differences between then and now is the nature of criminal records and how easily searchable they are. If you get arrested for disorderly conduct now, any future employer can (and almost definitely will) spot it on a background check within 10 minutes of considering your application. You probably won’t ever have a chance to explain that you were standing up for your ideals–even if they did bother to find out the reasons for an arrest, HR personnel wouldn’t risk their own careers on hiring someone with a record when there are 40 other spotless candidates with similar resumes.

    One of the reasons there were more successful protests in the early 60s was that the black community had so little to lose. The jobs that people had, if they had them, didn’t preclude public protesting and the occasional arrest as they do now. That said, if unemployment hits eurozone-type numbers (or worse) in America and young people truly lose faith that they can ever get the type of jobs that prevent people like me from protesting today, then we might see some serious action.

    –Tristan

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I think you’re right. In his book, King takes pains to portray the nonviolent resistance campaign not as a movement that is being led by himself (or by any other leader) but as a genuine mass movement, an activist outpouring that is being led by ordinary people. For instance, he notes that at one point 5% of Birmingham’s black population was in jail because of the movement. To a large extent, the civil rights movement proceeded without the aid (and often with the active opposition) of well-meaning white people. Similarly, I think that if the Occupy Movement succeeds, it will do so largely without the help of well-meaning upper-class liberals like myself.

      A fellow SF writer noted, on his blog, that it seems (at least judging by the wearethe99percent tumblr) like alot of the emotional impetus behind the Occupy Movement comes from people who identify as middle-class but feel like America has broken its pact with them. The tumblr is rife with stories about people carrying 100k debt loads from undergraduate and graduate education and yet being unable to find jobs in the fields that they trained for. It’s these kind of people–those who’ve experienced downward social mobility–that are probably going to be the ones upon whom success or failure will hinge.

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