My Copy: 9780807001127 (image from bn.com)
This one’s a far different book than Stride Toward Freedom. That book was an autobiography and history of the bus boycott. This one’s partly an autobiography with the Birmingham, AL protests and how they impact the struggle to a free and equal society.
Why We Can’t Wait was a bit tough to get into. It’s far shorter, less than 200 pages, but the sense of time and place weren’t there as much as I figured they would be. But then again, this is a book later in King’s career, when his name would’ve been known all around the country. He didn’t have to go into a lengthy backstory about his beginnings this time around.
The action discussed the most is the methodology, of essentially trying to keep nonviolent protest alive in the midst of uncertainty. I’d always heard about “Bull” Connor and wondered what was up with that guy. We don’t get too much of that here, but I’m sure this book was written for folks who didn’t get what was going on and why things were so much more complicated than the early protests, and then became more dangerous. It turns out there was an election going on and Connor was almost on the outs (as a way for the city to save face and not have to deal with the protests that they knew were coming, perhaps?). King feels more like an observer than an active participant, so maybe that’s why I had some trouble with getting a grasp on details.
But certainly, the chapter with Letter from Birmingham Jail was worth a re-read (hadn’t read it since high school). Part of me felt it was almost tacked in there, because an abrupt interruption in the course of events could’ve used an introductory paragraph or so to explain when and how the letter was written.
Details are remarkably sparse in this book. That surprised me. Maybe it’s because he had less of an up-front profile, and he details some failures of protesting in places like Atlanta, GA. You get a sense of what he felt needed to happen, and his observations. Dates are frustratingly lacking, so there’s far less of a sense of time, which unless you’ve lived it and read the headlines, or cracked open some books about it, you might get lost.
If you’re expecting much eyewitness accounts of the worst of Bull Connor’s tactics, words to go with the headline photos of kids and dogs’ teeth, you’re not going to get that here. I was sure there would be plenty of that.
But then again, this is more the story of the struggle with Birmingham as the backdrop. Perhaps I was too tired to think of that in the moment (too many hours at work in between). What was interesting is that King began to call groups out a bit for standing in the way or meekly standing aside, namely sympathetic whites or downtrodden blacks who “wanted order more than justice.” These are folks that figured if they let time take care of it, justice would come. King argued vehemently against that, that people speaking out would do the job.
Much of this book also answers detractors who don’t understand the movement as a whole. Those parts were interesting reading, because while the Civil Rights Movement in general SEEMS well tread ground in history classrooms today, it’s the nuances and the littler voices in the movement that have gotten drowned out in the bigger picture. There were angry articles written about the movement’s leadership and complete misunderstanding that the movement was made up of a combined sense that something was wrong and needed fixing, but thousands of voices that also wanted different things. The movement’s always been painted as homogenous, but that’s never been the case of any movement. King explains what’s being missed by those glancing from the outside.
I can’t wait to get to his third autobio in the next few days. This one’s definitely different than Stride Toward Freedom, but it’s not bad. Just more prep for what you’re getting into will help you take it in more.