50 years later, Obama salutes effects of Civil Rights Act

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By PETER BAKER |

AUSTIN, Tex. — For three days, the veterans of a long-ago movement reunited and drew together their spiritual heirs to explore the legacy of the Civil Rights Act a half-century after it transformed America. And then the legacy walked onstage.

President Obama presented himself on Thursday as the living, walking, talking and governing embodiment of the landmark 1964 law that banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin.

In a speech that stirred an audience of civil rights champions here at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, Mr. Obama acknowledged that racism has hardly been erased and that government programs have not always succeeded. But, he added, “I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of L.B.J.’s efforts, because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts, because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts.”

Thanks to the law and the movement that spawned it and the progress made after it, Mr. Obama said, “new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody,” regardless of race, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. “They swung open for you, and they swung open for me,” he said. “And that’s why I’m standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”

The president’s speech marking the 50th anniversary of the law Johnson signed in July 1964 was one more moment for Mr. Obama to address his own role in history. Though Mr. Obama often seemed reluctant to be drawn into discussions of race relations in his first term, insistent on being the president of everyone, he has been more open in talking about it since winning re-election.

The president made unusually personal comments after the case of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager whose death two years ago set off a roiling national debate about race, saying the slain young black man “could have been me.” He recently created an initiative called My Brother’s Keeper to help young men of color and has been more vocal about voting rights and equal pay for women. His administration has become more active in looking for ways to curb racial profiling by law enforcement and disparities in criminal sentencing. On Friday, he will address the Rev. Al Sharpton’s organization in New York.

“The second election and final election is behind him so he’s free,” Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, the civil rights icon who introduced Mr. Obama, said in an interview afterward. “There’s something about not having to run again that frees you. He’s liberated, and I do think he’s speaking out more.”

Still, Mr. Obama used most of Thursday’s address to extol Johnson in what could be the most generous speech by any sitting president about the Texan since his funeral, one that all but ignored the Vietnam War. Mr. Obama offered little of his own personal journey on race, which might not have connected to some in the room given that the president, the son of an absent father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, was a child growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia during the civil rights movement.

Nor did Mr. Obama use the speech to advance his policy priorities. He did not mention overhauling immigration, perhaps his biggest legislative goal, and did not say anything about same-sex marriage, which has been the most expansive social change during his presidency. He did not mention his fight against efforts to discourage voting, which the night before he called “un-American.” Nor did he cite equal pay for women, the theme of other speeches this week.

“He did a kind of inspiration and that’s important,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the longtime civil rights activist, said in an interview. “But beyond inspiration, we need the legislation, the budget and the policies to protect Johnson’s legacy.”

Mr. Obama was one of four presidents to address the conference. Jimmy Carter spoke on Tuesday and Bill Clinton on Wednesday.

Former President George W. Bush used a Thursday evening speech to call the achievement gap between white and black children “a national scandal” and urge both parties to address it as the central civil rights issue of the modern era.

As president, Mr. Bush signed the bipartisan No Child Left Behind education law, and he lamented on Thursday that “gains have stalled” and noted that a typical 17-year-old African-American student reads at the same level as a 13-year-old white student. Addressing critics of No Child Left Behind, he said he did not object to adjustments.

“But the problem comes when people start to give up on the goal,” he said. “Some have ideological objections to any federal role in education. Some are too comfortable with status quo. The alliance between ideology and complacency seems to be getting stronger. I fear that the soft bigotry of low expectations is returning.”

The event felt a little like a time capsule. Between speeches and panels, the audience listened to 1960s anthems by Bob Dylan and watched a grainy black-and-white video with scratchy audio of Johnson. A photo montage recalled the famous, and infamous, moments of the era, then traced the progress of race relations all the way to Mr. Obama’s presidency. The crowd stood for the gospel singer Mavis Staples, who performed “We Shall Overcome.”

On hand were Johnson’s two daughters, Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb; Maria Shriver, the niece of John F. Kennedy; and civil rights figures like Julian Bond and Andrew Young.

Mark K. Updegrove, the library director, showed the Obamas copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment ending slavery and signed by Abraham Lincoln, as well as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts signed by Johnson.

Mr. Obama’s encomium to Johnson at times sounded like a rebuttal of critics, mainly on the left, who have compared him unfavorably with the signer of so many major pieces of legislation. “He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required,” Mr. Obama said. “He could wear you down with logic and argument, he could horse trade and he could flatter.”

All traits that critics and some supporters say Mr. Obama does not seem to have. But unlike Johnson’s powerful Democratic majorities, Mr. Obama has a Republican House, and he argued that progress continued to be made “however many times we have to take a quarter of a loaf or a half a loaf.”

In a ruminative moment, he said: “You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision. But the presidency also affords a unique opportunity to bend those currents by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates, by working within the confines of the world as it is but also by reimagining the world as it should be.”

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