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Home » Famous Lines » Martin Luther King Day: “‘Wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never!”

Martin Luther King Day: “‘Wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never!”

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January 16. 2017

mlk-in-jail

As it happens, the third week of January 2017, the week in which the United States holds its formal Inauguration of a new American president, begins with the commemoration of Martin Luther King Day today and ends with a Women’s March on Washington, D.C. that will dwarf the attendance of the Inauguration itself. This will be a week that will overwhelmingly manifest the sharp moral divide in the United States over questions of basic human rights.

As I begin The Literary Life for the last half of Season Two, let me put in front of you this poignant passage from Martin Luther King’s most important written work, the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, written in 1963.

“I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is a 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 as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, 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. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well-timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. 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, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

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