JOSH LEDERMAN, Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Barack Obama was 2 years old when Lyndon Baines Johnson sat in the East Room of the White House with Martin Luther King Jr. and signed the Civil Rights Act, putting an end to an America where schools, restaurants and water fountains were divided by race. Half a century later, the first black man to become president is commemorating what’s been accomplished in his lifetime and recommitting the nation to fighting the deep inequalities that remain.
Obama takes the podium on Thursday afternoon on the third and final day of a 50th anniversary summit that’s bringing four living presidents, civil rights leaders and cultural icons to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. The celebration comes as Johnson’s legacy, four decades removed from the end of the Vietnam War, is being revisited, with his prolific domestic achievements serving as a reminder of how little Washington seems to accomplish today.
For Obama, who was criticized by some African-Americans in his first term for doing too little to help minorities, the commemoration dovetails with a focus on inequality and economic opportunity that has become an early hallmark of Obama’s second term with modest success. Democrats have seized on the broader theme as their battle cry for the election year.
Lingering injustices in the U.S. notwithstanding, the significance of Obama’s participation in Thursday’s ceremony isn’t lost on Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, who withstood violence and arrest during the civil rights marches through Alabama in the mid-1960s.
“If somebody told me back in 1964 that a man of color would be president of the United States, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re out of your mind, you don’t even know what you’re talking about,’” Lewis said in an interview. “When people say to me nothing has changed, that feels like, come and walk in my shoes.”
The summit 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.”
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrived in Austin Thursday morning and were scheduled to tour the LBJ library with members of Johnson’s family ahead of the president’s remarks. Former President George W. Bush will deliver the finale in the evening.
When Americans look back 200 years from now at the nation’s broader trajectory on civil rights, they’ll likely single out three major markers along the way, presidential historian and LBJ biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin said: Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act and Obama’s election in 2008.
But the vision is not yet fulfilled, civil rights activists insist. They’re wary of allowing celebrations of what’s been accomplished to become excuses for failing to finish the job.
As activists and leaders look to the next 50 years, the focus has turned to other areas where they say injustice remains and can be reduced, including equal pay for women, same-sex marriage and poverty — an issue that echoes Johnson’s own War on Poverty. So too have voting rights attracted renewed attention in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling gutting much of the Voting Rights Act — another part of LBJ’s legacy.
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