In July of 1964, fifty years ago this month, Harper & Row published what has often been 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 grew out of ideas in first expressed in King’s extraordinary “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a passionate response to eight white clergymen who argued that racial segregation should be fought in the courts and not by protest in the streets. That famous letter, which is included in the book, was first composed on scraps of paper and in the margins of a smuggled newspaper. It would eventually bring much needed national attention to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign in Birmingham, and become an essential clarion call for the wider civil rights movement.
As the passage below indicates, Why We Can’t Wait reveals the significant challenges Dr. King and his colleagues faced in Birmingham—from the lack of national media support to his own “outsider” status in a community divided by distrust—as well as King’s tremendous gift of transcending the specifics of time and place with themes of fellowship, righteousness, and universal human dignity:
from Why We Can’t Wait
In Montgomery, during the bus boycott, and in the Albany, Georgia, campaign, we had had the advantage of a sympathetic and understanding national press from the outset. In Birmingham we did not. It is terribly difficult to wage such a battle without the moral support of the national press to counteract the hostility of local editors. The words “bad timing” came to be ghosts haunting our every move in Birmingham. Yet people who used this argument were ignorant of the background of our planning. They did not know we had postponed our campaign twice. They did not know our reason for attacking in time to affect Easter shopping. Above all they did not realize that it was ridiculous to speak of timing when the clock of history showed that the Negro had already suffered one hundred years of delay.
Another reason for the opposition within the Negro community was resentment on the part of some groups and leaders because we had not kept them informed about the date we planned to begin or the strategy we would adopt. They felt that they were being pulled in on something they had no part in organizing. They did not realize that, because of the local political situation, we had been forced to keep our plans secret.
We were seeking to bring about a great social change which could only be achieved through unified effort. Yet our community was divided. Our goals could never be attained in such an atmosphere. It was decided that we would conduct a whirlwind campaign of meetings with organizations and leaders in the Negro community, to seek to mobilize every key person and group behind our movement.
Along with members of my staff, I began addressing numerous groups representing a cross section of our people in Birmingham. I spoke to 125 business and professional people at a call meeting in the Gaston Building. I talked to a gathering of two hundred ministers. I met with many smaller groups, during a hectic oneweek schedule. In most cases, the atmosphere when I entered was tense and chilly, and I was aware that there was a great deal of work to be done.
I went immediately to the point, explaining to the business and professional men why we had been forced to proceed without letting them know the date in advance. I dealt with the argument of timing. To the ministers I stressed the need for a social gospel to supplement the gospel of individual salvation. I suggested that only a “dry as dust” religion prompts a minister to extol the glories of heaven while ignoring the social conditions that cause men an earthly hell. I pleaded for the projection of strong, firm leadership by the Negro minister, pointing out that he is freer, more independent, than any other person in the community. I asked how the Negro would ever gain his freedom without the guidance, support and inspiration of his spiritual leaders.
I challenged those who had been persuaded that I was an “outsider.” I pointed out that Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights was an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and that the Shuttlesworth group had asked S.C.L.C. to come to Birmingham, and that as president of S.C.L.C., I had come in the interests of aiding an S.C.L.C. affiliate.
I expanded further on the weary and worn “outsider” charge, which we have faced in every community where we have gone to try to help. No Negro, in fact, no American, is an outsider when he goes to any community to aid the cause of freedom and justice. No Negro anywhere, regardless of his social standing, his financial status, his prestige and position, is an outsider so long as dignity and decency are denied to the humblest black child in Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia.
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 are proud to have published Beacon’s edition as part of The King Legacy, a partnership that brings together the legacy of one of the most important civil rights and social justice leaders in the world with one of the oldest and most respected independent publishing houses in America. On the 50th anniversary of its publication, Dr. King’s Why We Can't Wait reminds the world why we must continue to struggle toward a nation of peace and social justice.