From the East Room of the White House almost 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson stared into a television camera and announced to the nation, “I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
It was landmark legislation — the first of several initiatives during his presidency — that was transformational for a country then divided by segregation and home to large pockets of poverty.
Since the the day he left office, with the burden of the Vietnam War weighing on him like a yoke, his domestic achievements have been overshadowed by the country’s involvement in the failed Southeast Asian conflict.
This week at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin,President Obama and former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were on hand to commemorate passage of the Civil Rights Act while helping to refocus the nation’s attention on another part of Johnson’s legacy. While the elder George Bush wasn’t able to make it to the Austin event, the 41st president was on hand to greet Air Force One in Houston Wednesday when Obama landed there for a political event.
Not lost in the three-day event at the Johnson Library was the fact that LBJ was probably the only person who could have pushed a civil rights bill through Congress at the time, just a little over a year after President Kennedy had proposed it.
Johnson got the job done using his Texas background to appeal to other southerners on both sides of the aisle, his enormous legislative skill as a former Senate majority leader, his legendary political arm-twisting and the memory of Kennedy, who had been slain in Dallas just a few months earlier.
Civil Rights, along with the war on poverty, Medicare, Medicaid and the National Endowment for the Arts, will always be a part of LBJ’s enduring legacy.
In fact, his last public speech — one during which he had so much heart pain that he had to pause and take a nitroglycerin pill — was given at a civil rights symposium at the library in December, 1972.
It was appropriate that some of the civil rights leaders who were there then joined with Obama and his predecessors in the same auditorium to remember the president who had done the most for civil rights since Abraham Lincoln.