Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham and Why We (Still) Can’t Wait

Book/Music Vibe: Book: Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King. New York: Signet Classics, 1964. 206 pages. X Music: Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles Davis.

As we arrive to another dawn of MLK Jr. Day, it led me to reflect (like many others) on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Recently, I finished reading his book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” which is an enduring testament to the wise and courageous vision of King as a leader in the civil rights struggle. King recounts the story of Birmingham, traces the history of the struggle for civil rights from its beginning more than three centuries ago, and conveys some dim approximation of being in his position on the verge of the third American Revolution.

So, perhaps this book’s greatest contribution is in giving us a glimpse in how King was no idle dreamer. As Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. recalls, in the afterword on King, stating “he was first and foremost a man of action. A man who marched. Sweated. Went to jail. Organized. Demanded the best of us. Forced each and every American to examine his or her conscience.”


Why We Can’t Wait finds King in the year of our Lord 1963, confident, poised and ready to combat segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. In this account, King details the brutality of mayor Bull Conner, infamous for turning water hoses on unarmed protestors, and the bravery of ordinary citizens who were undeterred in their commitment to justice.  King’s recount of his decision to go to jail and the outcome he himself struggled to fathom, depicts a crucial turning point for the civil rights struggle. Here is where King would pen, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of his most famous declarations about racial inequality. Yet, as King himself explains, the decision to be incarcerated allowed him to demonstrate his belief in the importance of freedom and justice.


In Why We Can’t Wait, King sets the stage for Birmingham in summer of 1963.  King explores why this year was the year that his movement gained strength and became a national event. “Summer came, and the weather was beautiful,” he writes. “But the climate, the social climate of American life, erupted into lighting flashes, trembled with thunder and vibrated to the relentless, growing rain of protest come to life through the land. Explosively, America’s third revolution – the Negro Revolution – had begun” (p. 2).

There were many factors that King attributes the rise to, including the slow integration of schools after Brown vs. Board of Education, a growing lack of confidence in politicians and government after the Kennedy administration failed to deliver on the Civil Rights act and on support for black voting rights in the south, the growing anti-colonization movement in Africa and its psychological impact on oppressed black Americans, the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation making clear to black people how far they still had to go, the ongoing poverty in the black community, and the rise of nonviolent direct action both in the US and abroad as a means for social change.

On April 12th, 1963, King was arrested following a nonviolent protest demonstrating against segregation. A court had ordered that King could not hold protests in Birmingham.  Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor arrested King for demonstrating without a permit and placed him in the Birmingham City Jail for 11 days. While King was in jail, he wrote a letter to the newspaper explaining why he had broken the law. “I am here because injustice is here,” he wrote. “I would agree with Saint Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.” Because black people had suffered injustice for so long, King believed they should not have to wait any longer for change. Despite the hardships they endured, King portrays Birmingham as a critical victory.

The closing message on the “Ongoing Revolution,” is King’s call for continued action both in Birmingham and elsewhere. He describes their movement as the start of a revolutionary army and warns against complacency. He also calls for unity among oppressed people in America, calling for alliance with Native Americans and saying that he believes the summer of 1963 has made most white Americans receptive to his ideas. The conclusion explains the title of the book, stating that black people can no longer simply move towards freedom, but must assert it. He expresses hope that poor whites and organized labor will join with him, and states that the next step for the movement may be to work with the new president, Lyndon Johnson. He hopes that the civil rights movement, if it succeeds, may spread non-violence worldwide and end the nuclear arms race.


The messages from Why We Can’t Wait are relevant and as urgent today as they were in Birmingham in 1963. In this book, King writes why he believed nonviolence was essential for him as a man of God. He also believed that violence would ruin the chances for change. King and others were willing to go to jail for the cause of civil rights. King also notes the wisest decision he made during the Birmingham struggle, which was that of involving young people who invigorated the protests and reminded everyone about the importance of involving youth in working for social change.

Why We Can’t Wait is useful for all learnings, discussions, and investigations that grapple with the issues of justice and injustice, and this text encourages readers to think deeply about what it means to pursue nonviolence in words and in action. Though written in the 1960s, it is impossible to read Why We Can’t Wait and not draw parallels to today.

It is relevant for today’s youth, as they find their way and seek to add their own voices to the world. Why We Can’t Wait provides a compelling rationale for helping a new generation born since King’s death to make visible the lineage between advocating for racial and social injustice from 1963 to today, and the power-and importance-of young people to assume that mantle.

So, as we remember and celebrate King as a symbol of peace and harmony, let us also not forget the militancy that was necessary for King to make even the most minuscule progress for black Americans. While in Birmingham, King held a radical believe that in measuring the full implications of the civil-rights revolution, the greatest contribution may be in the area of world peace. He knew that the key to unlocking American apartheid was not in the White House or governor’s mansion. As Jessie Jackson describes, “home by home, congregation by congregation, city by city, Dr. King convinced the people that they had power if only they would use it.”

Fifty years since his assassination in 1968, the urgency to fulfill the legacy of King is upon us. Because in doing so, might just mean trusting to leave this world a better place than we entered it.

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About the Author
Mariel Kanene is Founder and Editor of TheArtOfPersptive.co and lead storyteller with a focus on music, startups and travel. His passion for storytelling was born in Kinshasa, Congo, groomed in Dallas, Texas, and cultivated in Washington, DC where he now resides. By day, Mariel spends his days slowly trying to change the world—one meaningful interaction at a time. He loves reading factual-fiction, good podcasts, traveling, health and fitness, foreign languages and good conversations over good coffee and even better rum. He hates talking about himself in third person.Thanks for stopping by. Always appreciated. Find me on: Twitter | Instagram | Linkedin | Website.

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