Radical Martin Luther King Jr. On “Why We Won't Wait”

King’s 1963 excerpt from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail
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“For years now, I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see . . .that justice too long delayed is justice denied.” - Martin Luther King Jr.

In July 1963 on the heels of the exhaustive Birmingham Campaign focused on integration, and the historic March on Washington for full civil, political, and economic rights for Black Americans and the poor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. published an excerpt from his historic open Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

In his letter King argued that people have a moral responsibility to put an end to unjust laws and to act rather than waiting—possibly in perpetuity —for justice to be delivered by the courts in this country to receive the rights granted them by God and the U.S. Constitution.

When King later published his book centering on the Birmingham letter, he titled it “Why We Can’t Wait” versus the title used in the published excerpt, “Why We Won’t Wait. Regardless of its more conciliatory title, its stinging criticism of moderate sympathizers and silent clergy remained.

King wrote that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting for justice to come through the courts.

If King was nothing else, he was a prudent and wise man. I sometimes wonder when it came to the courts, whether he had the ability to see the future or was just keenly aware of the courts’ history in this nation's history. Not only should courts not be depended on as a source of salvation for Black people, but even when, on occasion, the court decides justly, it should not be dependent on in the long sweep of history as we have learned the courts have little reticence about denying human rights and/or taking rights away.

Maybe, King was warning us of what could and did come.

Don’t depend on the courts for deliverance

This week for purely partisan reasons, the Supreme Court blocked the OSHA temporary standard designed to protect employees of large corporations from the ravages of COVID-19 even though it is estimated the standard would save 13,000 lives and prevent more than a half million hospitalizations over the course of a year.

On June 25, 2013, when the nation’s highest court ruled in Shelby County v Holder effectively striking down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King's words about the courts again rang true.

Students of history were probably not surprised by the action of the Supreme Court in this case because it was not that long ago, May 2, 1927, when the Supreme Court upheld Buck vs. Bell, sanctioning the infamous eugenics spawned forced sterilization for people like Blacks, considered genetically unfit. The vestiges of that ruling still resonate with survivors. It took until December 31, 2021 for California to act on reparations for the thousands of victims forcefully sterilized in this state.

Going back even further in the Supreme Courts history of rulings that disregarded human and civil rights we must remember the 1857 Dred Scott decision that said we Blacks were not Americans and as such could not petition the federal courts for relief and there was also the separate but equal Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1857.

The nation’s sluggish approach to voting and civil rights

Turning back to King’s 1963 excerpt from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail published in the Financial Post under the title Why We Won’t Wait, King explained why he opposed the nation’s sluggish approach to civil rights. He pointed to how long Blacks had already waited—since their arrival in this country hundreds of years ago for the rights granted by God and the U.S. Constitution.

Expounding further, King aimed sharp criticism at so-called moderates whom he had courted from the beginning of the movement. He seemed to have grown weary of those who would say how they agreed with his goals but could not agree with his methods. He was gravely disappointed with the white moderates King said, “who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom, who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.’”

Why should Blacks and other disenfranchised people wait for a “more convenient season” when we can see how, even today some sixty years since King put pen to paper in that Alabama jail, that many so-called moderate Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin—as they stand on the Senate floor wrapped in their white privilege paternalistically believing they can still “set the timetable for another man's freedom;” for another man’s right to vote and have it accurately counted, when these are the same Constitutional rights King struggled for nearly 60 years ago.

There is little question these individuals continue to carry the water of their ancestor segregationists who once owned the Democratic party.

The Senate filibuster

It is easy for these Senators and others who hide silently behind them to give lip service to their alleged support of voting rights when they are unwilling to set aside the Jim Crow era filibuster rule and as a result, know full well that by keeping the rule in place they will never have to be put to the test of a binding vote as they would were the filibuster removed. Their words are hollow. They have no meaning—what a thinly veiled act of cowardice.

To try and change the conversation away from their complicity in the Senate’s failure to act to protect voting rights and the sanctity of how ballots are counted in this travesty and lay it at the feet of Republicans is grossly disingenuous as no one ever expected Trump era Republicans—who were willing to overthrow the government—to support voting rights legislation.

Did President Biden go too far or did he not go far enough?

As for those who claim President Biden went to far in his Atlanta speech on Wednesday when he compared those not willing to support the voting rights legislation or move beyond the filibuster to the likes of segregationists Bull Conner and George Wallace claiming blocking today’s voting rights bills can’t be compared to turning dogs and fire hoses on children, I say it is comparable. In fact, it may even be worse.

Data clearly shows how Black children die disproportionately every day due to the structural and institutional racism that keeps them hungry, in substandard housing, breathing toxic air in polluted communities and often without access to adequate healthcare.

I do agree, however, that many people today do not even know the names Bull Conner or George Wallace and the president could have used a more modern day example of Black voter disenfranchisement to make his point.

Consider Texas resident Crystal Mason who was sentenced to five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot (that was not even counted) because she did not realize that as a recently released former felon she had not regained her voting rights in the state; or how in 2018 Florida voters approved a landmark constitutional amendment allowing ex felons to vote only to have state legislators pass regulations demanding that in order to vote these individuals must first pay all court fees, fines or restitution owed before they will be allowed to cast a ballot.

We say we won’t wait, and yet, we still wait

Like the adage goes, We take one step forward and two steps back.

It is only through the ballot that we can elect that we have any hope of truly creating a government of by and for the people. We can accomplish this by electing individuals willing to dismantle the racist infrastructure that undergirds every pillar of this nation's democracy and economic engine. This will never happen without equal access to the ballot.

Once again, this nation is at a crossroads facing what King so aptly called, “the fierce urgency of now.”

Biden spent the first year of his presidency searching for consensus with those in the Republican Party who had already made it– to use King’s phrase–“incandescently clear” they had no intent of working with him on anything (beyond the infrastructure bill that will be a windfall for their supporters).

Perhaps Biden will finally take heed to King's wisdom, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

It is time for everyone to work for passage of national voting rights legislation in whatever way you can.

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.

Stephanie Williams is executive editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News. A longtime champion for civil rights and justice in all its forms, she is also an advocate for government transparency and committed to ferreting out and exposing government corruption. Stephanie has received awards for her investigative reporting and for her weekly column, Keeping it Real. Contact Stephanie with tips, comments. or concerns at myopinion@ievoice.com.

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