Clinton praises 'political genius,' 'martyrs' who made civil rights laws a reality

Former President Bill Clinton took the stage Wednesday during the second evening of the LBJ Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit in Austin, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Following a series of inspiring readings on civil rights presented in part by the families of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson, Clinton reflected on the accomplishments of civil rights leaders in the 1960s and how the nation should work to honor and continue their efforts.

“These laws were bargained for shrewdly by a political genius,” Clinton said in reference to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. “They were championed with great purpose by distinguished citizens. But they were also paid for with the blood of martyrs.”

Citizens owe it to them to continue to move forward together, Clinton said, noting that there are “no final victories in politics” and that “thank you is not good enough.”

After referencing the leadership style of Nelson Mandela, Clinton stressed the importance of practicing the “politics of inclusion.” He also touched on the current state of the Voting Rights Act and voter ID issues from state to state, specifically criticizing Texas for its laws.

“We’re laughing, but it’s dead serious,” Clinton said after making a comment that he was at one point considering coming to Texas for additional schooling, but can’t because he doesn’t have the proper ID. “This is a way of restricting the franchise after 50 years of expanding it.”

He further emphasized the importance of disagreements, so long as the purpose is to move forward, not paralyze and divide the country.

“We have too many current challenges to waste today trying to recreate a yesterday that we’re better off done with,” he said. “We have too many challenges to waste any opportunity to work together to deal with them.”

The three-day summit concludes today following conversations with President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush. Former President Jimmy Carter spoke at the event on Tuesday. 

Live stream the summit here

LBJ, MLK, and the push for civil rights

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared a deep, personal, and practical relationship that helped in passing 1960s civil rights legislation, panelists said Wednesday as part of the LBJ Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit.

“I think it was very warm and personal,” said former Rep. Andrew Young, a close King aide, describing the relationship between King and Johnson. “Whenever I was with them there was never an argument or tension; there was gentlemen’s disagreement. Dr. King saw himself as having to keep the pressure on.”

Pressure created by the March on Washington and nonviolent civil rights demonstrations in the South—and authorities’ often brutal crackdowns on them—began to open the door to major civil rights legislation in 1963, but it took leadership from Johnson and congressional leaders to push it through the following year, speakers said.

That legislation, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, is the focus of the three-day summit, which is bringing four of the five living U.S. presidents and numerous other leaders to Austin to discuss past and current civil rights issues.

The “LBJ and MLK” panel featured speakers who either worked with or extensively studied Johnson, including historian Taylor Branch; author Doris Kearns Goodwin, a former LBJ aide; Joseph Califano Jr., former U.S. Army general counsel who was Johnson’s top domestic aide; and moderator Todd Purdum, a journalist and author of “An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” a new book about the Civil Rights Act. Young, who went on to serve as a United Nations ambassador and Atlanta mayor, offered perspective from the movement’s front lines.

The speakers agreed that although Johnson initially called for passage of the Civil Rights Act in honor of the recently slain President John F. Kennedy, he quickly made the issue his own and did everything in his power to see it through Congress, even at the risk of alienating fellow Southern Democrats.

“Within a month after Johnson became president, the government changed,” Califano said. “The pressure to do civil rights…it was in his gut.”

Johnson’s later civil rights achievements, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were his proudest, Goodwin said.

“And he knew it would stand the test of time,” she said.

The session began with the playing of a recorded phone conversation between King and Johnson in which they pledged cooperation, although their relationship was not without conflict. Goodwin said tension is inevitable when an outside movement is pushing a president to act more quickly than the government is prepared to act.

“The same tension existed between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass,” said Goodwin, author of the 2005 Lincoln biography "Team of Rivals." “Douglass was constantly telling him, ‘You’re not doing everything I want you to do,’ and eventually they became really good friends. And Lincoln understood he needed Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, just as LBJ needed the civil rights movement. And together Martin Luther King and LBJ produced something—thank God they were there at that moment of history—that changed our country forever.”

The Civil Rights Act was the gateway to broader freedoms for many other Americans, including women and the disabled, Branch said.

“All those doors opened in the wake of going through the gate of race,” Branch said, adding that he viewed civil rights leaders as akin to founding fathers. “They were confronting subjugation and they were setting in motion equal citizenship.”