AUSTIN, Texas — Fifty years after the passage of sweeping civil-rights legislation, President Obama said 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 in July 1964, Obama lauded his Democratic predecessor’s ability to grasp like few others the power of government to bring about change.
He presented himself as the living embodiment of the landmark law, acknowledging that although racism has not been erased and government programs have not always succeeded: “I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts.”
Thanks to the law and the movement that spawned it and the progress made after it, Obama said: “New doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody … And that’s why I’m standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”
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Obama spoke to an audience of civil-rights champions at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, near the end of a three-day summit commemorating the landmark law that outlawed in public places discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender or national origin.
The anniversary has spurred a renaissance for Johnson’s domestic agenda, which included the creation of Medicare, Medicaid and the Voting Rights Act.
Against the backdrop of Obama’s 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.”
The president also offered insights into his views on the office he has held for more than five years, casting it as a humbling perch with powerful possibilities.
“Those of us who’ve had the singular privilege to hold the office of the presidency know well that progress in this country can be hard and it can be slow, frustrating. And sometimes you’re stymied,” 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 of those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision,” he added.
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.
“If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because today we remain locked in the same great debate about equality and opportunity and the role of government,” Obama said, noting that there were those who dismissed LBJ’s “Great Society” as a failed experiment that encroached on liberty.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrived in Austin on Thursday morning. Ahead of the president’s remarks, the Obamas toured the LBJ library’s “Cornerstones of Civil Rights” exhibit, which includes the Civil Rights Act signed by Johnson, as well as a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln and one of Lincoln’s trademark stovepipe hats.
Former President George W. Bush closed the event Thursday by calling education the key to the future for poor and minority students, and he delivered a warning that he fears the “soft bigotry of low expectations is returning.”
In 2002 he signed the No Child Left Behind law, which expanded the federal government’s role in demanding accountability from schools. He said the law helped close the achievement gaps between white and minority students.
“Any education gains that we make will be undermined by lowering our sights in the classroom. … It is poor and minority children who suffer the most,” Bush said.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.