President Barack Obama, delivering the keynote address of the Civil Rights Summit in Austin on Thursday, steered away from current civil rights concerns and legislative solutions and instead explored the man that was Lyndon Baines Johnson. While the president fell silent on gay marriage, equal pay for women, and immigration reform, he delved into LBJ’s childhood, time in the U.S. Senate, and characteristics as a “master of politics and the legislative process” who made possible the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Going back to LBJ’s early life in the Texas Hill Country, Obama explained that poverty was so common for LBJ’s family that they did not even know it had a name. “President Johnson had known the metallic taste of hunger; the feel of a mother’s calloused hands, rubbed raw from washing and cleaning and holding a household together,” said Obama. “His cousin Ava remembered sweltering days spent on her hands and knees in the cotton fields, with Lyndon whispering beside her, ‘Boy, there’s got to be a better way to make a living than this. There’s got to be a better way.’” LBJ used his determination and ambition to make a better life for himself, and, Obama said, it was this tenacity that benefited him later in life when trying to get Congress to pass the Civil Rights Bill.
Obama reminded the audience that LBJ had moral shortcomings and “was not perfect,” having opposed every single civil rights bill during his first 20 years in Congress. But when LBJ stood in the Oval Office, “and asked himself what the true purpose of his office was for, what was the endpoint of his ambitions, he would reach back in his own memory and he’d remember his own experience with want. And he knew that he had a unique capacity, as the most powerful white politician from the South, to not merely challenge the convention that had crushed the dreams of so many, but to ultimately dismantle for good the structures of legal segregation.” LBJ, Obama said, embodied America, “with all our gifts and all our flaws. Making their lives better was what the hell the presidency was for.”
Moved by those leaders and participants of the civil rights movement who were willing to sacrifice everything for their own liberation—and despite warnings from his own advisers—Obama said LBJ used his iron will and skills honed in Congress and “fought for and argued and horse traded and bullied and persuaded until ultimately he signed the Civil Rights Act into law.… And he didn’t stop there…. ‘The meat in the coconut,’ as President Johnson would put it, was the Voting Rights Act, so he fought for and passed that as well. Immigration reform came shortly after. And then, a Fair Housing Act. And then, a health care law that opponents described as ‘socialized medicine’ that would curtail America’s freedom, but ultimately freed millions of seniors from the fear that illness could rob them of dignity and security in their golden years, which we now know today as Medicare.”
Obama said that progress in America can be hard and slow and stymied, and a president can feel as if he is just a relay swimmer in the currents of history. Still, these currents can be bended, he said, calling on the young people who will follow him to fulfill the goals of a great society. “And that means we’ve got a debt to pay. That means we can’t afford to be cynical.… We are here today because we know we cannot be complacent.”