AUSTIN, Texas – A half-century after the passage of sweeping civil rights legislation, President Barack Obama declared that he had lived out the promise envisioned by Lyndon B. Johnson, the president who championed the push for greater racial equality.
Marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which Johnson signed into law, Obama lauded his Democratic predecessor’s ability to grasp like few others the power of government to bring about change and swing open the doors of opportunity for millions of Americans.
They swung open for you, and they swung open for me, he said. That’s why I’m standing here today.
Obama spoke at the end of a three-day summit commemorating the landmark law that ended racial discrimination in public places. The anniversary has spurred a renaissance of sorts for Johnson’s domestic agenda, which included the creation of Medicare, Medicaid and the Voting Rights Act.
And against the backdrop of Obama’s own troubled relationship with Congress, there have also been fresh bouts of nostalgia for Johnson’s mastery of congressional deal-making.
No one knew politics, and no one loved legislating, more than President Johnson, Obama said. He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required.
As the nation’s first black president, Obama faced criticism from some blacks in his first term for doing too little to help minorities. He’s used his second term to focus more acutely on issues of inequality and economic opportunity, an effort that dovetailed with the commemoration of the Civil Rights Act.
Using Johnson’s domestic successes as a model, Obama made the case that the government can still play a role in enacting social programs that can address inequalities.
Amid the celebrations, Obama said he sometimes worries that decades after the civil rights struggles, it becomes easy to forget the sacrifices and uncertainties that defined the era.
All the pain and difficulty and struggle and doubt, all that’s rubbed away, Obama said. And we look at ourselves and say, Oh, things are just too different now, we couldn’t possibly do now what they did then, these giants.’ And yet they were men and women, too. It wasn’t easy then.
The summit marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act kicked off Tuesday with remarks from former President Jimmy Carter, who lamented residual racial inequality and Americans’ apathy about the problem.
Former President Bill Clinton followed on Wednesday, riffing on immigration and voting rights while warning that a modern-day reluctance to work together threatened to put us back in the dustbin of old history. Former President George W. Bush closed the event by calling education the key to the future for poor and minority students and delivered a warning that he fears the soft bigotry of low expectations is returning.