This Summer marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And, to honor those that fought and the progress they made, a 3 day summit was held this week at his Presidential Library on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.
Johnson's legacy has been haunted by the specter of the Vietnam War, and that has in many ways overshadowed his top accomplishments like the Civil Rights Act, fair housing, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act.
Johnson also had the courage to use the Presidency as a bully pulpit to pass Civil Rights legislation during an election year. It would be his only election to the Presidency as he decided not to run for reelection due to the division and death toll of Vietnam.
Every living former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush was in attendance at the Civil Rights Summit. Thursday's keynote reflection on Civil Rights was delivered by President Obama, who acknowledged that he is President today because of the Civil Rights movement.
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Besides the powerful headliners the Summit held a number of informative panels on cultural issues connected to Civil Rights and where progress has been made across societal and political institutions including music and sports.
I was fortunate enough to snag a ticket on the last day and attended a session titled "Social Justice in the 21st Century: Empowering Minds, Changing Hearts, and Inspiring Service" with panelists Shirley Franklin, a former Mayor of Atlanta and professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Lex Frieden a Professor of Biomedical Informatics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, David Robinson, Hall of Fame center for the NBA San Antonio Spurs and honored philanthropist, Maria Shriver Humanitarian, journalist and former First Lady of California, and Steve Stoute Founder and CEO, Translation.
For more contest Frieden is disabled and "one of the foremost policy experts, researchers, and disability rights activists in the United States," Shriver is the niece of John F. Kennedy who fought on behalf of Civil Rights until the day he was assassinated, and Stoute "has made a career of helping Fortune 500 companies thrive in the world of popular culture."
Stoute, who is currently working on a film that he says will preserve Johnson's Civil Rights legacy and inspire the next generation, had a takeaway that I believes captures the spirit of the Summit. He said, in order to get youth involved in politics we must introduce it to them in bite sized pieces that connects to their lives as they see it. This idea is in concert with the organization that's intended to promote and preserve that legacy caled the LBJ Future Forum. It also takes the Summit from a place of historical reflection by our current generation to one of present action on behalf of the next.
Ultimately the hope is that the future is always a better place and that won't happen if we lose our connection with the struggles of the past. When children born a decade ago don't recognize that electing a Black President is a big deal that shows we have both made tremendous progress in race relations, but that we risk taking our current freedoms for granted or not ensuring their extended to those still being left behind. That's why education and exposure to diversity is such an empowering tool and it is the key to a society that does not see social justice as impeding economic success.
George W. Bush is one of the last powerful members of the GOP who still believe the federal government has a role in education. He said at the Summit that it is one of the most important tools of opportunity for poor and minority children.
As young poor man growing up in Central Texas Johnson knew education was empowerment. He knew as was laid out by the Supreme Court decision Brown Vs. Board that when people was treated inferior they felt inferior and could not live up to their full potential. That's why when his advisor suggested he wait until after the election to push Civil Rights he said, "Well, what the hell is the Presidency for?"
Another great example is when pushing for the Voting Rights Act in 1965 Johnson told the story of bringing hope to those who don't have a voice long before he was in the White House.
"My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn't speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead."
That hardship still continues for the families of undocumented immigrants who live in fear of being torn apart by deportation. Currently nearly 2 million deportations have taken place under President Obama, and threw at least some cold water on an otherwise celebratory Summit. Protesters consisting of DREAMers and their allies numbering about 150 pleaded with the President to take executive action while singing the song that was also the Summit's theme -- We Shall Overcome. Perhaps most incongruous was the fact that Travis County, of which Austin is the County Seat, leads the nation in the deportation of immigrants for noncriminal offenses like traffic violations.
In his speech Obama didn't mention the current fight for comprehensive immigration reform or other modern wedge issues in Washington, but focused on the Civil Rights legacy of LBJ. He did however recognize that the struggle continues, "Yes, it's true that, despite laws like the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, our society is still racked with division and poverty."
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was a panelist at the Summit regarding Immigration Reform and according to the Texas Public Radio, "Castro told the crowd that a reform of the United States immigration system will enhance civil rights by bringing people out of the shadows, creating situations where immigrants aren't afraid to report crimes, send their kids to school and get the care they need for their families."
President Carter, who served over 3 decades ago gave some context from the view of the Presidency,
"We've fallen short in a lot of ways. You know, we still have gross disparity between black and white people on employment, the quality of education...We kind of accept self-congratulations about the wonderful 50th anniversary. Which is, which is wonderful but we feel like, you know, Lyndon Johnson did it. We don't have to do anything anymore. I think too many people are at ease with the still existing disparity."
President Clinton focused on the backsliding on the Voting Rights Act, "Here in Texas, the concealed carry permit counts, but there's one photo ID that doesn't count: one from a Texas institution of higher education...This is a way of restricting the franchise after 50 years of expanding it."
For all the talk of progress, many still involved in the trenches or who are themselves maligned know there is still much progress to be made -- especially in Texas. If we are going to celebrate the civil rights movement as a legacy, we must also consider those who are still struggling for equality and social justice. We still lack marriage equality, the Voting Rights Act is being rolled back while state laws are enacted to make voting more difficult, families are being broken up through mass deportations, and women's healthcare is still being used as a political wedge issue.
We still have hope and we can still make change, but it starts with each of us and the way we view and treat each other. And it must always lead to the voting booth.