[Book] “Why we can’t wait” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the Oppressor; it must be demanded by the Oppressed.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last month, in my very last morning in Saigon, I spent the whole morning in Fahasa Nguyen Hue to pick up several books to bring back home in Hanoi. As I have written before in my post about bookstores in Taipei, it is just like a ritual of mine whenever traveling that I will visit a bookstore in a city wherever I travel, picking up a book and leaving a note on the place and date for record.

This book is dedicated for the book “Why we can’t wait” but I thought I could not write about the book without sparing some lines for the bookstore where I found out the book.


Fahasa Nguyen Hue Bookstore

Fahasa Nguyen Hue, located on Nguyen Hue Street, District 1, just a few steps away from my Company’s office in Ho Chi Minh City, is among my favorite places in HCMC. Last year, after a night sleeping at the office, I remember myself waking up, having a walk around Nguyen Hue Street and accidentally finding out this bookstore. The bookstore is right at the first floor of a building, the upper floors of which are old apartments utilized to be clothes shops and coffee shops. What made me first impressed about Fahasa in my trip last year is its wide offering of English books in comparison with other bookshops run by large companies I have been to in Hanoi before. Don’t get me wrong, Hanoi has several bookshops with great offering of English books but these bookshops are run by individuals rather than companies. As far as I know, Fahasa also entered into a strategic cooperation with Kinokuniya Bookstore, which then explains for the appearance of a corner of Kinokuniya in Fahasa Bookstore fully dedicated for Japanese books. Notwithstanding that, from my own observation, although the amount of books offered there was quite overwhelming, the book genres were not diversified enough. Most of the books offered in Fahasa were of chick-flick or young adult genre, some were of self-help and some were of classics. In my last year’s trip, it took me quite a long time to choose out really good books to bring back home. My choices last time were books written by William Trevor, namely Elizabeth Alone and The Children of Dynmouth. This time, I also chose two books of William Trevor, i.e. Fools of Fortune and Other People’s World and a book of Martin Luther king, Jr. named “Why we can’t wait.”

why we cant wait

I was first impressed by the quote of Luther King printed on the book cover: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the Oppressor; it must be demanded by the Oppressed.” While Luther King was listed among the most influential persons of the 20th Century, I do not know a lot about him other than from sporadic facts like King was the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, which was to struggle for the abolition of racial segregation and discrimination against African American. Before reading this book, I have already read “The Help” (Kathryn Stockett) and the classic one “To Kill the Mocking Bird” (Harper Lee) and somehow imagine how it was difficult to be an African American during the first half of the latest century. However, it was not until I finish this book that I have a bigger picture of how the African American struggled for their rights.

For a detailed background, please refer to the recap of Wikipedia here. When I first knew about Luther King via a lesson in history textbook at secondary school, I was a little bit confused as I am not sure about the reason for such a movement when as far as I was concerned at that time, the slavery was ended before in the 19th century in America. After reading more information and watching related movies, I vaguely understood the story. It, however, always remains a myth to me to make sense why a Country, which often boasts to be the land of freedom and of which its Declaration of Independence proudly stated that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”, can be a Country where the bad treatment towards people of other bloods was taken for granted for such a long time. During my time in Taipei, I started reading about Thomas Jefferson and story related to the Declaration of Independence, admiring him and feeling uneasy at the same time on finding out that all men are created equal and not everyone is regarded as “man” by Thomas Jefferson.

“Why we can’t wait” is a book written by Martin Luther King, Jr. about the nonviolent movement against racial segregation in the United States, and specially the 1963 Birmingham Campaign. The book describes 1963 as a landmark year in the Civil Rights Movement, and as the beginning of America’s “Negro Revolution”. (Wikipedia)

The book is King’s own account on the nonviolent movement against the racial segregation in the United States, providing with reason for his choice of nonviolent, reason for the rights of being equally treated as well as his own record of events taking place during the movements. For a layman like me without great interest and understanding of the history in this regard, the very first chapters were a little bit boring for me as all the events or abbreviation like SCLC were quite strange to me. The second half of the book, however, is quite interesting to me for Luther King’s presentation of his own philosophy related to democracy, human rights and his choice of standing up for his men’s rights.

The most impressive chapter to me should be Chapter 5: “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, written in a few days when MLK got trapped for leading the movement.  For a brief Vietnamese translation, please refer to this link. This Chapter was mainly dedicated to responding to the criticism from “the white moderate” for the direct action taken by the African American, who believed that the African American deserves the right but has to wait and criticized that the activities initiated by MLK are “unwise and untimely”. MLK, with his good eloquent, to a certain extent, provided quite a good explanation.

MLK first explained that he had already followed a proper procedure when launching the nonviolent campaign: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham”, firmly stating the fact that “Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation” and that the Negro’s negotiation in good faith was refused by the City leader, which was then served as the basis for the Negro’s movement.

MLK also emphasized on the need for “tension”. He stated that the purpose of the movement was “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue to create”. He was not afraid of the word tension yet believed that such tension was “a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth”. Socrates was mentioned more than once throughout the letter to explain for his belief in the need of “direct action”: “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” ; or “Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.”; or comparing the condemnation of the white moderate of the Negro’s movement as “condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?”.

His argument for the need of tension, while making sense today in the democracy countries, is like a taboo in many societies where most of people still hold the view that street parades do more harm than good and there will be time when everything will be automatically better. It reminds me of a recent talk of mine with a friend at university, who graduated from UK, in which she argued with me that everything will be better in our country, the traffic will be better, there will be fewer cases of corruption, the environment will be better, we should do nothing but focus on our own jobs and wait. And when I asked back that “When will all these things be better?”, she firmly stated that it would be better sooner or later and if I were not satisfied, please leave my country for a better place. It was quite a shock to me on hearing her words, given that she spent two years living abroad and she was not kind of rich kid studying abroad on her own family’s expense.

The passage wherein he distinguished the unjust law and the just law on defense whether his movement broke the laws is quite interesting. As one whose works are somehow law-related and one who often wonders about the justification of laws in her own country, MLK provided quite a good view for reference:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

And he also provided with classic example:

“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

And once again on the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom.

I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Actually, I was first hesitant to read this book. I wonder if reading the book is of any use to me. Coming back from a society where struggling for one’s rights is considered a normal practice to a society where any comments not in line with “guidance” regarded as a taboo has made me disappointed for a while until I learnt to embrace the blissful ignorance toward everything taking place again. Such attitude, actually, is quite easy to be found in people living around me. Even a colleague of mine, a Yale graduate, or a friend of mine, who was the valedictorian of an international university in our country and pursued her graduate studies in a US school criticized a well-known Mathematic professor for his Facebook statuses on their beliefs that this professor should focus on his Mathematics rather than putting any negative statuses on his Facebook regarding our country’s situation for their fear that “the mass is unwise and irrational” and our country will be better without the negative comments/ criticism like that. Though I respect their own viewpoints, I still feel helpless on knowing that even the ones, who I suppose to be well-educated like that, the idea of struggling for the right things is kind of an illusion, how come will our society get better. And actually, I am also not a brave girl to take any action but wait for, perhaps, magical changes.


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