Most of us appreciate the significance of the 1960s civil rights struggles in America and honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year. We know he was an important leader and have seen film clips from his stirring “I have a dream” speech. But unless we learned about events from people who participated in the movement itself, we do not know the rest of the story.

Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr., and first published in 1964 gives readers insight into this watershed moment in American history from the pen of one of its most influential and principled proponents. It is, in essence, a literary time capsule for the year of 1963.

Dr. King opens by describing the worldview and tragic socioeconomic circumstances of the average African-American of that time. The motivation for change is clear. He then goes on to chronicle, step-by-step, how he helped organize and carry out nonviolent protests in the city of Birmingham.

One of the most interesting parts of this book for me was the way Dr. King combined his faith with action. These two elements are inseparably interwoven. Prayer and scripture informed each move he made. An example of how he extended his values to the movement is reflected in the pledge each person was required to sign before participating. In summary, they had to promise to meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus, commit to nonviolence no matter what happened, pray daily, be courteous and loving, perform acts of service, and persevere. What high standards!

The unfolding of the movement in Birmingham, its setbacks, successes, negotiations, and long-term results are all documented here. The opening chapters are quite compelling. Chapter 5 is the Letter from Birmingham Jail, an overview of his beliefs. There is a description of the March on Washington. Then Dr. King describes his hopes for the future and his analysis of the political environment of the time.

Included are photos of Dr. King with other civil rights leaders, of police and demonstrators, the sites of recriminatory bombings, and the historic gathering in Washington D. C. on August 28, 1963. An Afterword by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. in the volume published by Signet (2000) helps put the book into historical perspective.

I recommend Why We Can’t Wait for high school students. The language is brilliantly eloquent and the concepts are complex. Younger audiences might struggle to grasp the full meaning.

This slim book (about 200 pages or less, depending on the print version) is probably on the shelf of your city or school library. Why We Can’t Wait is also available online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Christianbook.com.

Donna Fujimoto’s children love to read. She is a graduate of Alliance Theological Seminary. Her collection of short stories, 9 Slightly Strange Stories with an Uplifting Edge  is available as an e-book at Amazon.  The Shining Orb of Volney, a science-fiction novel, is her latest title. 

 

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