I found Why We Can’t Wait in a cardboard box at someone’s used-book sale a few years ago. I pounced on the little Signet paperback because it was by Martin Luther King Jr., not about him, free of celebrity blurbs and explanatory essays by scholars. King wrote it in 1963-64, in the midst of civil rights ferment, to explain the movement and his philosophy to a general audience. It’s a dispatch from the culture-of-life struggle, short but insightful. With the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech coming up in a few days, this is a good book to re-discover.
His words here about nonviolence in the civil rights movement are timely as ever. “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”
One chapter of Why We Can’t Wait is the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which can be found in other anthologies as well as on its own. King wrote the letter in response to some clergy who found his nonviolent demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” Anyone who has worked to defend the right to life since 1973 has surely heard those words from someone in authority. Read King’s letter for a thought-provoking reply.
Anyone who thinks the pro-life movement has no business being mentioned in the same breath as the civil rights movement should read this book. Nonviolent defense of human rights wasn’t just a ’60s thing.
Side note: late in the book, he makes a strong pitch for what we now call affirmative action to compensate for past discrimination. If he were alive today, I wonder what he’d think of what affirmative action has devolved into. When does one say “okay, we’re even”?
My copy of the book is a 1964 paperback, priceless to me not only for the contents but also for the dry little note on the cover about the author: “Martin Luther King, Jr., is a clergyman and author … and is a frequent contributor to national, as well as religious, periodicals.” How strange to see him described in his lifetime as though he were just another scribbler. Some of his best work lay ahead when Why We Can’t Wait was published. Without knowing anything about what came before or after the book, though, it stands up well on its own.