Why We Can't Wait

By Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson

7,129 ratings - 4.52* vote

Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim…when you see the vast majority of twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts

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Book details

Paperback, 223 pages
January 1st 2000 by Signet

(first published July 1st 1964)

Original Title
Why We Can't Wait
0451527534 (ISBN13: 9780451527530)

Community Reviews


I read this book in high school at a time when I was just beginning to truly understand the Civil Rights movement. This book changed my life. I don't care if that sounds cliche or whatever, but there is no way a person can read a book like Why We Can't Wait, and experience Dr. Martin Luther King's more than deeply profound rhetoric of freedom and equality and then turn around and aim for mediocrity. I have a lot more to say but I shall save my thoughts and pour them into action.


This is one of the - if not the - best of King's books, as it details the crucial Birmingham campaign and features at its heart the incredible Letter from Birmingham Jail. Although always positive in tone, it deals with the realities of a campaign that is now viewed as pivotal to the success of the American Civil Rights Movement but that was anything but assured in its own time. That King acknowledges this reality while placing it in a constructive context all the while advancing his positive, forward-looking message is a testament to his vision and incredibly forgiving perseverance.

Whitewashed now by its success and the sands of time, most people remember Birmingham as an unqualified success, if at all, yet it was by no means that. It was a difficult campaign - with the city's incredibly intransigent Jim Crow establishment, its fiery Public Safety Director Bull Connor, its disunity within the then-Negro community, etc. - that came very close to failing. Had it failed, the Civil Rights Movement could have been dealt a virtually fatal blow. Instead, a key points in the struggle, King and his partners in the leadership of the campaign were able to come together and make progress in daunting cirmcumstances.

One example is the controversial decision to use children as demonstrators. A highly controversial tactic, it was they key to turning the tide in what was until that point a failing campaign. It ended up producing several important outcomes, including revitalizing and actually pushing the campaign over the top and also evidencing that the children of Birmingham actually led their parents by their quiet, courageous example. Initially, King was vilified for approving the Rev. James Bevel's strategy, but he proved stalwart in the face of widespread internal and external criticism and eventually victorious.

Another misperception about the campaign is that it was an unqualified success, which is was not by any means. Its victories were mainly symbolic and the practical effects were minor for some time due to the obfuscation and deliberately slow implementation of the agreement by the city leaders. King deals with this diplomatically but clearly and with evident disappointment and pain. It turns out that Birminigham's true contributions were strategic in nature, establishing the pivotal assault of the thereafter crumbling institution of Jim Crow.

It's these gritty yet honestly conveyed insights - in addition to the outstanding Letter from Birmingham Jail that is the heart and soul of the book - that make this such a worthwhile and satisfying read. It's hard to read about the discrimination and racism, but the story of the eventual triumph ultimately overshadows this, with the result that the overall story is an uplifting and inspiring one. One sees here in all of his moral and pragmatic glory a leader who is committed to effecting positive change and yet honest enough to share his own challenges and doubts.

Yes, there are a few challenges with the book, including that King sometimes is too generous and constructive about certain events (whereas Branch or Garrow and others have been more revealing), but it is a minor annoyance compared with the incredible story within the story and the towering moral leadership - especially as demonstrated in the Letter from Birmingham Jail - that is evidenced herein.

As I read this book for the third time and discovered new insights as well as appreciated old ones anew, I couldn't help but compare MLK to our current leadership and, frankly, be saddened. There are few people of his level of courage and conviction today, but there is a shining example for them to emulate should they emerge, especially as captured in this book.

I recommend Why We Can't Wait highly to all who have a sincere interest in figuring out how to effect moral, positive change and to anyone who appreciates the importance of learning from history in order to fashion a better future.


Wow. How sad is it that I live in Alabama, and I never knew that in 1963, Birmingham was considered to be the most segregated city in America?

Martin Luther King, Jr's Why We Can't Wait is an excellent treatise on the race issues still facing our country 50 years ago - 100 years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

This book is about non-violent revolution. About some of the turning points in American history 50 years ago, especially in Birmingham.

Please read this. We, especially those of us who are white, need to understand our history as a country. We need to know what really goes on; when those of us born into privilege don't understand why those who aren't feel oppressed.

Think about how many of King's statements in this book still apply today.

And think about what you can do to make a difference.

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture...but groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.


This book includes Dr. King's stirring "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." I can't really write a review, so I'll just say I learned a lot of things here on Juneteeth. I was born and raised in segregationist Virginia, so Dr. King's writings have a particular relevance to me and help me to understand better about hate and racism.


I think that every American should read this book. MLK, Jr. was an amazing man who was in love with God and who had a heart for people. He had an amazing understanding of what Jesus Christ would do and, I believe, was a great example of what a Christian should be. As I re-read "Letters From a Birmingham Jail", I was reminded how loving and forgiving of a man he was, even to the people who despised him the most. He had a vision of a world where everyone was treated equally, no matter what the color of their skin, and nonviolence was how he was going to reach that goal. The last words of the book, "Nonviolence, the answer to the Negroes' need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.", made me realize just how big his vision was. In the second chapter, he refers to nonviolence as "The Sword that Heals". I think this is a great allusion because their weapon was the nonviolent actions, but instead of being used to wound, it was used to heal years of segregation and the awful things that took place in the South against black people. This is a great history book and should be read in every high school!

Benjamin Zapata

"Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." - Martin Luther King Jr. A beautiful book with an everlasting message of love and non-violence; a classic exploration of the events and forces behind the Civil Right movement by someone that was there,one of the greatest human soul to walk on our planet,an enduring testament to the wise and courageous vision of Martin Luther King Jr. A must read for everyone!!!

robin friedman

Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait

A new anthology on Martin Luther King's political philosophy, "To Shape a New World" (2018) edited by Harvard University professors Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry has inspired me to read or reread the five books that King published during his life. Published in 1964, King's third book, "Why We Can't Wait" focuses on the 1963 Civil Rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. King and others had described Birmingham as the most segregated city in America. The national exposure the Birmingham Civil Rights Campaign received and the brutality of the police response under "Bull" Connor to the demonstrations led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

King organized the book around his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" which forms the fifth of the work's eight chapters. Beginning in April, 1963, King had been leading a boycott of stores in downtown Birmingham and leading a voter registration drive and a series of demonstrations. The demonstrations had been going slowly , although many participants had been arrested. King decided to violate a local court order and to participate in a march anticipating his likely arrest. King was arrested and was held in jail for eight days and during his confinement wrote this "Letter".

King's "Letter" was a response to a published statement by eight Montgomery clergymen criticizing the ongoing Montgomery demonstrations as unwise and untimely and asking for a more moderate approach to change including negotiations with the city leaders. The statement criticized "outsiders", including King, getting involved and inflaming the situation in Montgomery. King gave an eloquent response which emphasized the long history of discrimination against African Americans and the pressing need for justice in Birmingham. King had been invited to Birmingham by the local civil rights leadership, but his response is much broader and discusses the moral responsibility to fight injustice where it occurs. King's Letter invokes what is known as natural law and discusses the ways of identifying the difference between "just" and "unjust" laws. As the Letter goes forward, King adopts an increasingly passionate tone, criticizes moderates and established churches for their timidity, and explains the need for African Americans to move forward to secure their right to human dignity. King's "Letter" has become a classic in American political thought and American literature.

The remainder of "Why We Can't Wait" is effectively organized around the "Letter". It gives King's own perspective of the history of the Birmingham movement just as his earlier book "Stride Toward Freedom" had given King's perspective on the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott. The book is both a historical document and an explanation of the approach and goals of the Civil Rights Movement.

In the opening chapter King explores the significance of the year 1863, a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, for the outbreak of what he termed the Negro Revolution. King continues in the second chapter with a history of discrimination in the Reconstruction years and up to King's time, and discusses the considerations which led to the Birmingham campaign. King next describes segregated Birmingham under "Bull" Connor, a nemesis of the Civil Rights Movement, and then discusses the early stages of the Birmingham Campaign.

Following the "Letter" the book then continues with the involvement of the Kennedy Administration and a series of agreements reached with the business and political leaders of Birmingham. Unfortunately, the success of the agreement was short-lived, as a wave of violence from die-hard segregationists hit Birmingham, including the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, which killed four young girls attending Sunday school. Only many years after the event and after King's death were participants in the bombing apprehended and brought to justice. In the final chapter of his book, King addresses the need for additional measures, including a form of reparations, to address the poverty and lack of opportunity plaguing African Americans. King also offers perceptive comments on Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson and their strengths and weaknesses in the struggle for civil rights.

"Why We Can't Wait" is an extraordinary book and probably the best of King's five books. King worked carefully on the book and also had the assistance in its writing of several of his associates. The book offers King's own perspective on the Birmingham Campaign and its aftermath. In the "Letter" and throughout the book, King explains eloquently and passionately the necessity for the Civil Rights Revolution and the importance and nature of the philosophy and practice of nonviolence in securing just social change.

Robin Friedman


This was a terric book that deserves 5-stars but I only rated it 4-stars because it became too detailed and covered minutia that didn't interest me . It included Dr. King's full ' Letter from a Birmingham jail ' , which is rare and was enlightening .

I was particularly interested in the four pillars on which his dogged , non-violent movement was based : 1 . Collection of facts to identify injustice ;
2. Negotiation ;
4. Direct Action .

I was simply astounded at the lengthy agreement that individuals were required to sign before being allowed to be part of the protest !

This battle by Dr. King , his associates and league of protesters explains why his movement was so popular and successful ; and why the Olympic protest by Tommy Smith and John Carlos , and the violent, hate-filled movement of ' Black Lives Matter' are scorned by many , and eventually doomed to failure .

Carol Storm

I read this book when I was about sixteen. It is a beautiful and important book. Dr. King describes how to use nonviolent protest to challenge injustice and change society for the better. The stories about the protests are inspiring.

But the only part I really related to was a story about an execution.

It seems there was this black teenager who was found guilty of some crime and sentenced to death. As an experiment the prison officials put a microphone in the gas chamber so they could actually hear the prisoner dying. The last thing they heard him say, over and over, was “save me Joe Louis. Save me Joe Louis.”

Dr. King explains that this story was a way of showing how powerless black people felt in America. This was a boy who died alone, unable to call for help. All he could do was daydream about Joe Louis coming to save him. “Joe Louis would care because he was a Negro. Joe Louis could do something because he was the most powerful fighter in the world.”

Now it’s interesting that there are all kinds of black people in the book, but the only one I identified with was a teenage criminal who wasn’t even part of the Civil Rights movement. That black boy in the gas chamber was just like me, completely powerless. He wasn’t one of the people marching and protesting. He was dying and there was nothing he could do about it, except to call on a powerful, older man who was never going to answer him.

That’s exactly how I felt when I was sixteen.

Every night I had to lie in bed and listen to my father coughing in the next room. He was very sick. But he didn’t care. Cigarettes were killing him, but he refused to quit. Every night I listened and I felt powerless.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I could have learned from Martin Luther King. If I could have told someone at school about how I was feeling. I imagine standing up in the middle of class and saying that I couldn’t take the next test, or any test ever again, until my father agreed to quit. I imagine the other kids cheering, or laughing, or just staring at me and wondering why I was such a loser. And then I see myself sitting down again and going back to work.

No matter how sick my father got, I never stopped working hard. And my father never stopped smoking. Every night the hate grew stronger, and the shame. There was no way out.

Save me Joe Louis!


I celebrated MLK Day by reading Dr. King’s book, and I am so happy I did. This book is phenomenal!One of the most poignant reads I have read that gives light to some of the most pivotal moments during the Civil Rights Movement. There is so much passion and weight found in Dr. King’s words that it is almost impossible for you to not be inspired while reading.