Martin Luther King, Jr. at a press conference in June, 1964 World Telegram & Sun photo by Walter Albertin (via Wikimedia Commons)
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.
Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington
Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. It was a culminating moment in the civil rights movement, a movement that, as author and legal scholar Sheryll Cashin noted in her recent New York Times editorial, far from being isolated to southern black activists, involved an extensive and well-coordinated “grass-roots mobilization [that] was multiracial, from the integrated legion of Freedom Riders, to the young activists in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, to the more than 250,000 demonstrators in the March on Washington, a quarter of whom were white.” The story of the act’s eventual success is the story of our nation passing through a moral gauntlet. That, fifty years later, we remain uncertain about how best to address the legacy of those racial divisions that first sparked the movement is a testament to how deep the fissures ran. And how brave and dedicated the movement’s heroes were—Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Bob Moses, and others—men and women whose names have entered the lingua franca of American history, synonymous with freedom, righteousness, and moral certitude. As Dr. King says in his classic narrative Why We Can’t Wait, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God.”To celebrate their struggles, and the efforts of all those “co-workers with God” who sacrificed so much to lay the groundwork for the passing of the Civil Rights Act, we’ve put together a list of essential books that we hope will empower the next generation for another fifty years and beyond.
With a new school year just around the corner, students are stocking up on supplies and teachers are polishing their curriculum plans. To help the latter, Beacon offers guides to help in teaching many of our most popular titles. Find these and other teachers guides at our Scribd page and at Beacon.org.
Psst: if you're not a teacher, these guides can still be great tools for reading and comprehending some great books!
Teacher Patricia Rigley shares ideas for lesson plans, discussion questions, and sample assignments.
Long before the avalanche of praise for his work—from Oprah Winfrey, from President Bill Clinton, from President Barack Obama—long before he became known for his talk show appearances, Members Project spots, and documentaries like Waiting for "Superman", Geoffrey Canada was a small boy growing up scared on the mean streets of the South Bronx. His childhood world was one where "sidewalk boys" learned the codes of the block and were ranked through the rituals of fist, stick, and knife. Then the streets changed, and the stakes got even higher. In his candid and riveting memoir, Canada relives a childhood in which violence stalked every street corner.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Beacon Press is lowering the price of the eBook edition of Why We Can’t Wait to $1.99 on April 16th for one day.
April 16th marks the 50th anniversary of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a passionate response by Dr. King to eight white clergymen who argued that racial segregation should be fought in the courts and not by protest in the streets. The letter is Dr. King’s answer to claims that he was an outside agitator when he was, in reality, a peaceful protester, saying, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” served as the catalyst for the publication of Why We Can’t Wait, which Dr. King began writing in the fall of 1963. The book attempted to explain the “Negro Revolution” by drawing on the history of black oppression in the United States and the growing frustration among African Americans of the neglect of civil rights issues by both political parties. Originally published in 1964 by Harper & Row, Why We Can’t Wait received glowing reviews and further reflects the importance of Dr. King’s letter and his commitment to nonviolent, peaceful protest. It was reissued in 2011 as part of The King Legacy series from Beacon Press.
In 1963, Birmingham was often called the most segregated city in America. After accepting an invitation to engage in a non-violent direct-action program sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s affiliate, Dr. King was forced to choose between helping to raise bail money for hundreds who were already incarcerated for peaceful protest in a massive direct action campaign attacking the city’s segregation system among Birmingham’s merchants, or go to jail himself. According to Dorothy Cotton, who wrote the introduction to the 2010 edition of the book, Dr. King “came face to face with himself as a leader.” He had encouraged others to accept suffering and to accept jail time, and now there was no other alternative.
Ralph Abernathy, left, and Dr. King, are taken by a policeman after they led a line of demonstrators into the business section of Birmingham. (AP/Wide World)
After being jailed on April 12th under the pretense of parading without a permit, Dr. King writes his letter to express disappointment with the “white moderate” community that makes up the white churches, who he believes are more concerned with order than with justice. Dr. King urges for the use of nonviolent direct action, which creates and fosters a tension in a community which has constantly refused to negotiate and is finally forced to confront the issue of segregation. For him, this kind of constructive, nonviolent tension is necessary for growth.
Throughout the letter he outlined the four basic steps to nonviolent campaigns: 1) collection of the facts to determine whether or not injustices exist, 2) negotiation, 3) self-purification, and 4) direct action.
He underlines the definitions of the two kinds of laws: just and unjust. A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God, while an unjust law is one that is out of harmony with the moral code. For Dr. King, segregation is not only politically, socially, and economically unsound, but also morally wrong and sinful—the highest kind of unjust law and for him, “one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” Underlining the pent up frustrations of the African American community, Dr. King reminds the eight clergymen that to sit around and wait for acceptance and desegregation is impossible. Because freedom must be demanded by the oppressed, Dr. King argues that the best way is to march, and that it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Dr. King was eventually released from jail on April 20th.
The letter began on the margins of scraps of newspaper while Dr. King was isolated in jail. He eventually finished it on a pad his attorneys were permitted to leave with him. Dr. King’s letter circulated and was published in a variety of formats: first as a pamphlet distributed by the American Friends Service Committee, and then as an article in the Christian Century, the New York Post,Ebony, and Christianity and Crisis. The first half of the letter was published in the Congressional Record after being introduced into testimony before Congress by Representative William Fitts Ryan (D-NY). In July of 1963, Dr. King published an excerpt from the letter in the Financial Post, retitled “Why the Negro Won’t Wait.” It appeared in its entirety in Why We Can’t Wait. On the 50th anniversary of its publication, Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” reminds the world why we can’t wait, and why we must continue to struggle toward a nation of peace and social justice.
There was one threat to the reign of white supremacy in Birmingham. As an outgrowth of the Montgomery bus boycott, protest movements had sprung up in numerous cities across the South. In Birmingham, one of the nation's most courageous freedom fighters, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, had organized the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights---A.C.H.R.--in the spring of 1956. Shuttlesworth, a wiry, energetic, and indomitable man, had set out to change Birmingham and to end for all time the terrorist, racist rule of Bull Connor.
Fred Shuttlesworth leads Birmingham marchers in prayer before their arrest. (Joe Chapman)
At an organizing meeting at Harry Belafonte's apartment in New York City, Shuttlesworth and King spoke to supporters of the situation in Birmingham, and of the risks faced by those willing to take action:
Shuttlesworth, wearing the scars of earlier battles, brought a sense of the danger as well as the earnestness of our crusade into that peaceful New York living room. Although many of those present had worked with S.C.L.C. in the past, there was a silence almost like the shock of a fresh discovery when Shuttlesworth said, "You have to be prepared to die before you can begin to live."
Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr. (p 60)
"I thought of twenty million black people who dreamed that some day they might be able to cross the Red Sea of injustice and find their way to the promised land of integration and freedom. There was no more room for doubt." Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can't Wait
In celebration of the MLK Memorial Dedication, we are also giving away books by Dr. King. Enter for your chance to win hardcover editions of recent titles released by Beacon Press: Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Why We Can't Wait, The Trumpet of Conscience, "All Labor Has Dignity," and MLK: In Word and Image. One grand prize winner will receive ALL SIX BOOKS. Five winners will receive one book of their choice. For more information and to enter, see the Beacon Press website.
Today's excerpt is from Why We Can't Wait. Often applauded as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most incisive and eloquent book, Why We Can’t Wait is Dr. King's account of the civil rights movement in Birmingham during the spring and summer of 1963. He 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.
The excerpt (if you can't read it below, click this link to read on Scribd) describes the events leading up to King's arrest by Bull Connor in Birmingham on Good Friday.
On this day honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we here at Beacon Press are especially proud of The King Legacy Series, an historic partnership with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. to bring out new editions of King's previously published work as well as new books based on the writing in King's archives.
The King Legacy Series website has many resources available, including teachers guides and biographies of King and the scholars involved with the series. In addition, we include here some links to excerpts from the books as well as audio and video that celebrates the man and his writing.
SCRIBD Excerpts of titles in The King Legacy Series
Photo credit: King speaking during “phase one” of the civil rights movement at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, sometime before Ku Klux Klan members bombed it on September 15, 1963. (Joe Chapman)