Why We Can’t Wait

Updated: January 18, 2013

by Martin Luther King Jr.

A methodology and philosophy of revolution is neither born nor accepted overnight. From the moment it emerges, it is subjected to rigorous tests, opposition, scorn and prejudice. The old guard in any society resents new methods, for old guards wear the decorations and medals won by waging battle in the accepted manner. Often opposition comes not only from the conservatives, who cling to tradition, but also from the extremist militants, who favor neither the old nor the new.

Many of these extremists misread the significance and intent of nonviolence because they failed to perceive that militancy is also the father of the nonviolent way. Angry exhortation from street corners and stirring calls for the Negro to arm and go forth to do battle stimulate loud applause. But when the applause dies, the stirred and the stirring return to their homes and lie in their beds for still one more night with no progress in view. They cannot solve the problem they face because they have offered no challenge but only a call to arms, which they themselves are unwilling to lead, knowing that doom would be its reward.

They cannot solve the problem because they seek to overcome a negative situation with negative means.

They cannot solve the problem because they do not reach and move into sustained action the large groups of people necessary to attract attention and convey the determination of the majority.

The conservatives who say, “Let us not move so fast,” and extremists who say, “Let us go out and whip the world,” would tell you that they are as far apart as the poles.

But there is a striking parallel: They accomplish nothing – for they do not reach the people who have a crying need to be free.

We had decided to limit the first few days’ efforts to sit-ins.

Being prepared for a long struggle, we felt it best to begin modestly, with a limited number of arrests each day.

By rationing our energies in this manner, we would help toward the buildup and drama of a growing campaign.

The first demonstrations were, accordingly, not spectacular, but they were well organized.

Operating on a precise timetable, small groups maintained a series of sit-ins at lunch counters in the downtown department stores and drugstores. When the demonstrators were asked to leave and refused, they were arrested under the local “trespass after warning” ordinance.

By Friday night, there had been no disturbances worth note. Evidently neither Bull Connor, the segregationist police commissioner of Birmingham, nor the merchants expected this quiet beginning to blossom into a large-scale operation.

On one dramatic occasion even Bull Connor’s men were shaken.

It was a Sunday afternoon, when several hundred Birmingham Negroes had determined to hold a prayer meeting near the city jail. They gathered at the New Pilgrim Baptist Church and began an orderly march. Bull Connor ordered out the police dogs and fire hoses. When the marchers approached the border between the white and Negro areas, Connor ordered them to turn back. The Reverend Charles Billups, who was leading the march, politely refused. Enraged, Bull Connor whirled on his men and shouted:

“Dammit. Turn on the hoses.”

What happened in the next 30 seconds was one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story. Bull Connor’s men, their deadly hoses poised for action, stood facing the marchers. The marchers, many of them on their knees, stared back, unafraid and unmoving. Slowly the Negroes stood up and began to advance. Connor’s men, as though hypnotized, fell back, their hoses sagging uselessly in their hands while several hundred Negroes marched past them, without further interference, and held their prayer meeting as planned.

With the jails filling up and the scorching glare of national disapproval focused on Birmingham, Bull Connor abandoned his posture of nonviolence. The result was an ugliness too well known to Americans and to people all over the world. The newspapers of May 4 carried pictures of prostrate women and policemen bending over them with raised clubs; of children marching up to the bared fangs of police dogs; of the terrible force of pressure hoses sweeping bodies into the streets.

This was the time of our greatest stress, and the courage and conviction of those students and adults made it our finest hour.

We did not fight back, but we did not turn back.

We did not give way to bitterness.

Some few spectators, who had not been trained in the discipline of nonviolence, reacted to the brutality of the policemen by throwing rocks and bottles.

But the demonstrators remained nonviolent.

In the face of this resolution and bravery, the moral conscience of the nation was deeply stirred and, all over the country, our fight became the fight of decent Americans of all races and creeds.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait

In 1967, Martin Luther King launched the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial movement to bring the power of nonviolence to solving economic injustice. Two thousand poor people were to march on Washington, D.C., and demand jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage and access to education. King was assassinated six months later.

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