King, Martin Luther, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait. Signet Classics, 2000. Print.
This past week, I read for the very first time a book by Martin Luther King, Jr. I learned about MLK in school, but I was never assigned anything by him. The recent Black Lives Matter protests have inspired me to educate myself about racial injustice in my country. Since reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander I have begun to look at the prison system in a new way. America has never wanted black emancipation. The Civil Rights Act has largely been ignored because states find new ways to keep black people down. The War on Drugs is really a War Against Blacks. Since reading The New Jim Crow I realized that I didn’t know a thing about racial injustice in this country. I only thought of racism in terms of segregation (whites only schools, bathrooms, etc) and racial slurs. I am not white, but I am not African American either. I grew up in an upper middle class, suburban family. I have faced racism, but not the structural racism blacks face in America. After reading The New Jim Crow I decided to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement. I realized that I needed to finally read something by Martin Luther King, Jr.
King’s Why We Can’t Wait describes a system that unfortunately hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years. Schools and bathrooms have been desegregated, but blacks still face crippling poverty, unemployment, and disenfrachisment due to unjust laws. I was shocked by the contemporaneity of King’s writing. White people argue that great strides had been taken in the ten years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, but King writes that black people should not be forced to accept compromises. They will not compromise.
King also explains why and how nonviolent protest can be successful. Sit-ins and boycotts create a crisis that the white majority cannot ignore. They are forced to listen to the demands of the oppressed minority. King constantly cites the Bible to support his beliefs. He makes it clear that the Gospel demands social justice. White Americans tend to have an individualistic, otherworldly spirituality. African Americans have never had this privilege. They had to stick together to survive. They were constantly reminded of their earthly servitude. The black God is a liberating God.
The Letter from Birmingham Jail surprised me the most because it was not written to KKK members but to white moderates. These moderates claimed to support King, but they thought he was acting too quickly. King believes that the white moderate is more dangerous than the supremacist because the moderate pretends to care while supporting laws that perpectuate injustice. The Bible distinguishes between just and unjust laws. To support unjust laws in the name of “order” is to promote injustice. Black emancipation must condemn unjust laws. White moderates say “wait”, but the black person does not need the white person’s permission to be human.
Some passages from Why We Can’t Wait (particularly from the Letter from Birmingham Jail) seem particularly relevant in light of the debates surrounding Black Lives Matter, the state of American Christianity, and the recent election:
Yet another tactic was offered the Negro. He was encouraged to seek unity with the millions of disadvantaged whites of the South, whose basic need for social change paralleled his own. Theoretically, this proposal held a measure of logic, for it is undeniable that great masses of Southern whites exist in conditions scarcely better than those which afflict the Negro. But the rationale of this theory wilted under the heat of fact. The need for change was more urgently felt and more bitterly realized by the Negro than by the exploited white. As individuals, the whites could better their situation without the barrier that society places in front of the man whose racial identification by color is inescapable. Moreover, the underprivileged southern whites saw the color that separated them from Negroes more clearly than they saw the circumstances that bound them in mutual interest (29).
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative (87).
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular (105).
Why We Can’t Wait is the perfect book for Lent. It is a sobering reminder that all is not well in America and that as Christians we are called to fight racial injustice. But there is hope. Nonviolent protest does make a difference. I pray that our religious leaders will take this issue more seriously than they have.