That was the message delivered during a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act on Wednesday.
Rep. John Lewis, a prominent figure in the civil rights struggle, said there is probably no greater symbol of that change than the fact that he was introducing Barack Obama, the country’s first black president.
Obama took the stage at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, to great applause. Then, he went on to deliver a nuanced study of Johnson and the power of the presidency.
One of Johnson’s greatest strengths, Obama said, is that he was a great legislator.
“He understood laws couldn’t accomplish everything, but he also knew that only they could anchor change,” Obama said.
Johnson, Obama continued, was also a flawed man, with great ambition and a great hunger for power but that “hunger was harnessed and redeemed … by a sympathy for the underdog.”
Still, as a man from Texas, and perhaps for political expediency, Johnson once called the push for federal civil rights legislation a “farce and a sham.”
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson found himself in a unique position.
“When the time came, when Lyndon Baines Johnson stood in the Oval Office, looking out over the South Lawn… and asked himself what the true purpose of this office was for, what was the end point of his ambition, he would reach back in his own memory… and he would remember what his own experience would want and he knew he had a unique position,” Obama said.
Johnson was the most powerful white politician from the South. He was in a position to not only challenge civil injustices, but to demolish them.
He knew then, Obama said, that he was “the only guy who could do it.”
“That’s what his presidency was for,” Obama said. “That’s when he meets his moment.”
Obama admitted that we still have a long way to go and in some ways, the country is still arguing over what role government should play getting everyone to the “gates of opportunity.”
Yes, Obama said, there is still division and, yes, there is still racism. But he said he rejects the cynicism that government and politics are a “fool’s errand.”
“I reject such a thing,” Obama said. “Not just because Medicare and Medicaid have lifted many from poverty… I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s efforts.”
Those laws that he bullied and horse-traded through Congress have become “fundamental to our conception of ourselves as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are our foundation.”
However flawed our leaders, however flawed our politics, Obama said, “the story of America is the story of progress.”
At the end of the speech, Obama returned to that pivotal moment in LBJ’s presidency. An aide told LBJ that he should not spend his time on the Civil Rights Act, because the president should not spend his time and power on lost causes, no matter how noble.
LBJ replied: “What the hell is the presidency for if not to fight for causes you believe in?”
Obama promised he means to use the presidency for those purposes.
“If there is one lesson that he in this year’s anniversary should teach us … is that with enough effort and enough empathy and enough courage people who love this country can change it,” Obama said.
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