We live in a post-civil-rights era—a time in United States history when overt racial discrimination is illegal yet racial violence and inequality remain unrelenting. The paradox stems from a liberal civil-rights agenda that has failed to root out deep, systemic racial injustices while championing superficial racial equality under law. For decades that focus has stymied movements for transformative change.
But when, exactly, did the post-civil-rights era begin? Arguably, it was 50 years ago today, when in a speech at Harlem’s Riverside Church, Martin Luther King Jr. definitively broke ranks with the liberals he once considered allies.
“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” wasn’t any kind of obligatory antiwar statement. (Actually, he also spoke out against the war two months earlier, at an event in Los Angeles sponsored by this magazine.) Rather, the Riverside speech was his declaration of no confidence in the nation’s leading liberals, particularly the Johnson administration. On this spring evening in front of packed pews, exactly one year before his assassination, King explained how the US leaders who had championed civil-rights protections were never truly invested in full equality for African Americans. The clearest evidence of this was their murderous foray into Vietnam. King correctly understood that so long as liberals sent armies abroad to perpetrate racial violence they could never plausibly achieve true racial equality at home. King’s speech was a summons to transcend a civil-rights program that lacked what he termed “true values,” to soar above a hollow civil-rights agenda that cared only for disassociating itself from the crude optics of the Deep South. King believed that only a “radical revolution of values” could conquer the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” that were at the heart of American apartheid.
This didn’t go down well with King’s former allies. Most liberals frowned on his antiwar statements, and the media excoriated him. President Lyndon Johnson disinvited King to the White House, severing his ties with the civil-rights icon. This break has defined the past fifty years of US liberalism.
King anticipated the reaction, and he wanted others to know he knew the risks. At the beginning of his speech, King reported that many had cautioned him against coming out against the war: “ ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say. ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?’ they ask.” In response to his critics, King offered a simple, chilling observation: “They do not know the world in which they live.”
It was a world in which the “hopes [and] new beginnings” of federal antipoverty programs were quickly exchanged for the build-up of US forces in Vietnam. Such programs were left “broken and eviscerated,” abandoned like “some idle political plaything” by “a society gone mad on war.”