why can't we wait

Image: Mira Schendel, s/d. Photographic reproduction author unknown


Read an excerpt from the recently released book, a collection of texts by the author commenting on his arrest in 1963.

Whites and blacks united

After eight days of incarceration, Ralph Abernathy and I were bailed out of jail for two purposes. It was necessary for me to regain communication with SCLC officials and our attorneys in order to map out the strategy for the upcoming contempt cases in the district courts. Furthermore, I decided to put into operation a new phase of our campaign, which I believed would hasten our victory.

I called my team and repeated the conviction I had been expressing since the beginning of the campaign. If we wanted to succeed, we had to involve the students in the community. In recent direct action crusades, it is young people who have electrified the movement. However, in Birmingham, of the four or five hundred people who submitted to arrest, two-thirds were adults.

At the time, we considered this a good thing, as a really effective campaign incorporates a cross section of the community. But now was the time to recruit the youth in greater numbers. Even though we realized that involving teenagers and high school students would bring us a lot of heavy criticism, we felt we needed this new dramatic dimension.

Our people were demonstrating daily and going to jail in large numbers, but we were still banging our heads against the brick wall of the city authorities' stubborn determination to maintain the status quo. Our fight, if won, would benefit people of all ages. But most of all, we were inspired with a desire to give our young people a true sense of their own participation in freedom and justice. We believe they would have the courage to respond to our call.

James Bevel, Andy Young, Bernard Lee and Dorothy Cotton began by visiting the city's colleges and high schools. They invited students to attend church meetings after school. Word spread quickly and the response from Birmingham youth exceeded our fondest dreams. These young people participated in mass meetings and training sessions in groups of fifty and one hundred. They listened avidly when we talked about bringing freedom to Birmingham, not some distant time, but now.

We teach them about the philosophy of non-violence. We challenge you to bring your youthful exuberance and creativity to disciplined dedication to the movement. We find them eager to belong and hungry to participate in a meaningful social effort. Looking back, it's clear that introducing Birmingham children into the campaign was one of the wisest moves we made. This brought new impact to the crusade and the impetus we needed to win the fight.

Immediately, of course, a cry of protest went up. Although the attitude of the national press had changed considerably by the end of April, so that the mainstream media were sympathetically supporting us, still many lamented the fact that we “used” our children in this way. Where were these writers, we wonder, during the centuries when our segregated social system was misusing and abusing Black children? Where had they been with their protective words when, over the years, black children were born into ghettos, breathing their first breath into a social atmosphere where the fresh air of freedom was pushed out by the stench of discrimination?

Children themselves had the answer to the misguided sympathies of the press. One of the most moving responses came from a child who couldn't have been more than eight years old and who was walking with her mother.

on a demonstration day. A mocking policeman leaned over to her and said impatiently:

- What do you want?

The child looked fearlessly into his eyes and gave him the answer:

- Freedom.

She couldn't even pronounce the word right, but no trumpet of Gabriel's could have sounded a truer note.

Even children too young to march asked for and earned a place in our ranks. Once, when we sent out a call for volunteers, six little youths responded. Andy Young told them they weren't old enough to go to jail, but they could go to the library. “You won't be arrested there, but you might learn something,” he said. So these six young children marched into the white district building where, up until two weeks earlier, they would have been turned away at the entrance. Shy but stubborn, they went to the children's room, sat down, and soon lost themselves in their books. In their own way, they staged a coup for freedom.

The children understood the risks they were fighting. I think of a teenager whose father's devotion to the movement turned sour when he learned that his son had pledged to become a protester. The father forbade the son to participate.

“Daddy,” the boy said, “I don't want to disobey you, but I've sworn my oath. If you try to keep me at home, I'll run away. If you think I deserve to be punished for this, I'll just have to accept it. Well, you see, I'm not doing this just because I want to be free. I'm also doing this because I want freedom for you and Mom, and I want that to happen before you die.

That father thought again and gave his son his blessing.

The movement has been blessed by the fire and excitement brought by young people like these. And when the young people of Birmingham joined the march in numbers, something historic happened. For the first time in the civil rights movement, we were able to put into practice Gandhi's principle: "Fill the jails."

Jim Bevel was inspired to schedule a “D” day, when students would go to jail in historic numbers. When that day arrived, young people flocked to the 16th Street Baptist Church in waves. In all, on May 2nd, “D” day, more than a thousand young people demonstrated and went to jail. At one school, the principal gave orders to lock the gates to prevent students from leaving. Young people climbed through the gates and ran towards freedom. The assistant superintendent of schools had threatened them with expulsion and still they came, day after day. At the height of the campaign, by conservative estimates, there were 2.500 protesters arrested at one time, and a large proportion of them were young people.

As serious as these teens were in what they were doing, they had that wonderful humor that arms the helpless in the face of danger. Under their leaders they delighted in confounding the police. A small group that served as decoys gathered at an exit from the church, luring the police in cars and motorcycles. Before the officers knew what was happening, other groups appeared from other exits and moved, two by two, towards our objective in the center section.

Many arrived at their destinations before the police could confront and arrest them. They sang as they marched and as they were pushed into police vans. The police ran out of vans and had to squeeze us into sheriff's cars and school buses that had become service.

Watching those young people in Birmingham, I couldn't help but remember an episode in Montgomery during the bus boycott. Someone asked an elderly lady why she was involved in our fight. She replied, "I'm doing this for my children and my grandchildren." Seven years later, the children and grandchildren were doing it for themselves.

* Martin Luther King (1929-1968), Protestant pastor and political activist, was the main leader of the human rights movement in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s.



Martin Luther King. why can't we wait. Translation: Sarah Pereira. Sao Paulo, Faro Editorial, 2020.



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