April 10 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama honored the civil rights legacy of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, saying the late president understood that the “true purpose” of his office was to make a historic stand for equality.
Growing up poor in rural Texas, Johnson knew poverty and saw injustice, Obama said at the LBJ Presidential Library. Whatever his flaws, Obama said, Johnson knew when the time was right to extend the promise of America to all its citizens.
Johnson “grasped like few others the power of government to bring about change,” Obama said. “He had a unique capacity as the most powerful white politician from the South” to dismantle legal segregation in American society.
Obama was the keynote speaker at a three-day civil rights summit at the library on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Johnson’s role in enacting it. Obama was two years old when the act was passed by Congress and signed by Johnson.
The Civil Rights Act, along with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, “helped establish the legal foundation in fulfilling the long elusive promise of equality among all Americans,” according to the LBJ Library.
Together, the triumvirate of laws would ban discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin.
“Because of LBJ’s commitment to civil rights, he is a very important president to Obama,” said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian at the University of Texas in Austin. “The meaning to Obama is both professional and personal -- hugely personal.”
The nation’s first black president has often credited the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights acts with widening opportunities for people of color.
“As a master of politics and legislative process, he grasped like few others the power of government to bring about change,” Obama said of Johnson. “I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts.”
The social unrest of the 1960s, and the civil rights laws that followed, represent a “milestone in the history of race relations,” Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, said in a telephone interview.
Zelizer said Obama used the power of the civil rights and voting rights laws to form an electoral coalition in the 2008 and 2012 presidential races.
“Without the Voting Rights Act, those would not be votes that existed, because African-Americans were disenfranchised,” Zelizer said. “On both fronts, there’s a direct line connecting what happened in Johnson’s presidency and the president we now have.”
Obama was introduced by Georgia Democratic Representative John Lewis, one of the early leaders of the civil rights movement. He was part of a march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama that ended in the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation on March 7, 1965 in which the demonstrators were attacked by state and local police.
Johnson used the scene of violence to press ahead with his civil rights agenda.
“President Barack Obama was born into a difficult and dangerous time in American history,” Lewis said of the 52-year-old president. “People’s homes were bombs, their lives were threatened, for taking a simple drink from the same water fountain.”
While the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act helped take down the “unholy order” of segregation, Obama knows there is “much more work to do to redeem the soul of America,” Lewis said.
Obama said America’s story is one of progress, “However slow, however incomplete, however harshly challenged at each point on our journey, however flawed our leaders.”
Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush took part in the events, which began April 8.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama toured today an exhibit at the library that included landmark Civil Rights documents including President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 1964 legislation.
Last June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court threw out a core part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, also on display at the library, which opened the polls to millions of Southern blacks.
Obama denounced the top court’s decision, saying the Voting Rights Act has ensured that “voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”
Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam -- and the dissent that sowed in the country -- overshadows many of his domestic achievements. Aside from the civil rights legislation, he pushed through the Clean Air Act, Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start. He also championed an increase in the minimum wage, established manpower training programs, created the food stamp program and expanded wilderness areas.
“Johnson had a huge social movement” to propel civil rights and other legislation, and had Republicans who compromised, Zelizer said. “Obama just doesn’t have that kind of world.”
Johnson, who died in 1973, also had solid Democratic majorities in Congress throughout his more than five years in office and the ability to cut deals after more than two decades serving in both the House and Senate, including as Senate majority leader.
Obama, with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate during his first two years in office, managed to win passage of an economic-stimulus bill and his signature domestic achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The health-care law, known as Obamacare, got no Republican support and has been under attack from his opponents since it passed.
Since the 2010 congressional elections, Republicans have held the majority in the House and the result has largely been legislative stalemate with Democrats controlling the Senate.
“This has been the least productive Congress in modern history,” Obama said last night at a fundraiser in Houston for the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees.
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