In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. witnessed the atrocities and multiple inequities that Blacks in Birmingham, Alabama, faced day in and day out. They were overwhelmed with a rigid system of segregation. They were unable to vote. They were denied employment opportunities that would provide them with a decent wage. They could not try on clothes in the stores in which they spent their hard-earned money. Black children were barred from the city’s better public schools. Even liquor stores had separate waiting lines for Blacks and whites.
Dr. King pondered these and other forms of injustice as he sat alone in a Birmingham jail cell. There he would compose a note to the city’s white clergy who had severely criticized him, labeling him an outside agitator.
In his note, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he would offer one phrase to encapsulate his defense for pressing on and continuing the boycott for which he had earlier called, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The struggle in Birmingham served as a primer for Dr. King and other leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. Given the problems and divisions facing our nation today, we would be wise to both revisit and apply the lessons that were learned from the Birmingham encounter – most notably King’s admonition that “We can’t wait.”
“We cannot wait, because the jails are full of young Black men, including many who are fathers but unable to parent their children. We can’t wait, because we know now that failing to make education a priority cheats the country of latent talent. We can’t wait, because our young men and women are being programmed to kill (it’s called ‘serving our country’),” King writes in his collection of thoughts first outlined during his time in solitary confinement, later published in the book, “Why We Can’t Wait.”
In his conclusion, he shares his optimism for a brighter tomorrow.
“Many are searching. Sooner or later all the peoples of the world, without regard to the political systems under which they live, will have to discover a way to live together in peace . . . Nonviolence, the answer to the Negroes’ need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.”
Perhaps Dr. King remained inexplicably optimistic because he understood that as bad as things were, we, the African-American community, have faced far worse conditions. And there have always been those courageous enough to stand up, to sit down, in the case of Rosa Parks, to tell the truth, expose the lies and be a witness for justice and love.
As Dr. Cornel West, my intellectual mentor and instructor at whose feet I learned so much during my matriculation at Princeton Theological Seminary, has often said, “Just as [we] had to break the back of white supremacist slavery to save democracy, [we] will have to break the back of American apartheid or [we] will lose [our] democracy.
We have made real progress in America since 1963. Yet, many things seem to have gone unchanged. If we are truly committed to King’s vision of the “Beloved Community,” we must contend with the inevitability of becoming embroiled in a particularly messy struggle — one that will require hard work, the elimination of naïve prophecies of the future and the truth, as West likes to say, that we press on with “hope on a tightrope.”
So be it. We can’t wait. We really cannot wait.