By George E. Curry
AUSTIN, Texas (NNPA)—With civil rights legends Andrew Young, John Lewis and Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson looking on, President Barack Obama on April 10 credited the Civil Rights Movement and landmark legislation signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s for paving the way for his becoming the nation’s first black president.
Keynoting the three-day celebration at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in observance of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Obama said: “Today, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we honor the men and women who made it possible. Some of them are here today. We celebrate giants like John Lewis and Andrew Young and Julian Bond. We recall the countless unheralded Americans, black and white, students and scholars, preachers and housekeepers—whose names are etched not on monuments, but in the hearts of their loved ones, and in the fabric of the country they helped to change.”
There is no better evidence of that change than his election, the president said.
“Because of the Civil Rights Movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody—not all at once, but they swung open. Not just for blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos; and Asians and Native Americans; and gay Americans and Americans with a disability. They swung open for you, and they swung open for me. And that’s why I’m standing here today—because of those efforts, because of that legacy,” he said to loud applause.
“And that means we’ve—got a debt to pay. That means we can’t afford to be cynical. Half a century later, the laws LBJ passed are now as fundamental to our conception of ourselves and our democracy as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are foundational; an essential piece of the American character.”
In addition to Obama, three former presidents—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—addressed the summit. Also participating were U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Former NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond, who served as SNCC’s communications director under Lewis, and Andrew Young, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under Jimmy Carter and executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Lewis, Bond and Young were present at least two of the three days of the summit. Another civil rights activist of that time, Jesse L. Jackson, who headed SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, arrived on the last day of the conference and had no formal role in the celebration.
It was not clear if President Obama knew Jackson was in the audience or that it would have mattered if he had known. Relations between the two Chicago-based leaders have been icy since July 2008 when Jackson was overheard saying in an off-camera TV interview, “See, Barack’s been talking down to Black people…I want to cut his nuts off.”
Obama made no mention of Jackson in his speech. And Jackson was not included in the meetings the president has held at the White House with civil rights leaders, including Al Sharpton, a former Jackson protégée; National Urban League President Marc H. Morial and former NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous.
In his 30-minute address, Obama talked about how President Johnson, who grew up in segregation in rural Texas, overcame his upbringing to nudge the Democratic Party to embrace civil rights, knowing that it would ultimately be politically costly.
“He wanted to call on senators and representatives to pass a civil rights bill—the most sweeping since Reconstruction. And most of his staff counseled him against it,” Obama recounted. “They said it was hopeless; that it would anger powerful Southern Democrats and committee chairmen; that it risked derailing the rest of his domestic agenda. And one particularly bold aide said he did not believe a president should spend his time and power on lost causes, however worthy they might be. To which, it is said, President Johnson replied, ‘Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?’”
Johnson, who was noted for his salty language, was not always for civil rights.
“During his first 20 years in Congress, he opposed every civil rights bill that came up for a vote, once calling the push for federal legislation ‘a farce and a sham,’” Obama said. “He was chosen as a vice presidential nominee in part because of his affinity with, and ability to deliver, that Southern white vote. And at the beginning of the Kennedy administration, he shared with President Kennedy a caution towards racial controversy.”
Ironically, President Obama has also been accused of being too cautious on racial issues, especially during his first term.
But Johnson, like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan before turning into one of the most liberal members of the Supreme Court (1937-1971), showed an astounding ability to change.
He lobbied for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation that changed the face of the South, which practiced its own form of apartheid. The law banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Watching John Lewis and others being brutally beaten in 1965 as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the Selma-to-Montgomery March made a lasting impression on Johnson.
“What happened in Selma is part of a larger movement which reached into every section and state of America,” Johnson said at the time. “It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really, it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Borrowing the theme song of the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson said. “And we shall overcome.”
Three years after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Johnson signed into law the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Though the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion or national origin, it did not included any federal enforcement provisions. The housing law fixed that defect in the sale, rental or financing of housing.
In addition to his triumvirate of laws—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 1968 Fair Housing Act—President Johnson launched a War on Poverty to help poor people and signed other bills to help create what he called a Great Society. His efforts led to the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the Jobs Corps, food stamps, and passage of the Older Americans Act, the Manpower Act, the Public Works and Redevelopment Act, the Higher Education Act, the Child Protection Act, the National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act.
Obama used Johnson’s words to summarize the Texan’s goals: “’We want to open the gates to opportunity,’ President Johnson said. ‘But we are also going to give all our people, Black and White, the help they need to walk through those gates.’
“Now, if some of this sounds familiar, it’s because today we remain locked in this same great debate about equality and opportunity, and the role of government in ensuring each,” he said. “As was true 50 years ago, there are those who dismiss the Great Society as a failed experiment and an encroachment on liberty; who argue that government has become the true source of all that ails us, and that poverty is due to the moral failings of those who suffer from it. There are also those who argue, John, that nothing has changed; that racism is so embedded in our DNA that there is no use trying politics—the game is rigged.”
But, Obama is not among those who subscribe to that argument.
“But such theories ignore history,” the president stated. “Yes, it’s true that, despite laws like the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, our society is still racked with division and poverty. Yes, race still colors our political debates, and there have been government programs that have fallen short. In a time when cynicism is too often passed off as wisdom, it’s perhaps easy to conclude that there are limits to change; that we are trapped by our own history; and politics is a fool’s errand, and we’d be better off if we roll back big chunks of LBJ’s legacy, or at least if we don’t put too much of our hope, invest too much of our hope in our government.”
President Obama explained: “I reject such thinking. Not just because Medicare and Medicaid have lifted millions from suffering; not just because the poverty rate in this nation would be far worse without food stamps and Head Start and all the Great Society programs that survive to this day. I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts. Because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts. Because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts. Because I and millions of my generation were in a position to take the baton that he handed to us.”