On Thursday in Austin, Texas, President Obama delivered the keynote address at the LBJ Presidential Library’s Civil Rights Summit marking the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His theme was social progress through government action. “What President Johnson understood was that equality required more than the absence of oppression,” the president said. “It required the presence of economic opportunity. . . . A decent job, decent wages, health care — those, too, were civil rights worth fighting for. . . . He understood that government had a role to play in broadening prosperity for all those who would strive for it.”
The summit also marked the beginning of a string of semi-centennial commemorations of Johnson’s legislative achievements. The events will rehabilitate LBJ’s image in the coming years and present him as a champion of progress and social justice — equal rights for black Americans, economic relief for the nation’s poor.
The purpose of such an image for LBJ would be to supplant his better-known reputation as the president who escalated the war in Vietnam and declined to seek a second term. But now, as NPR plainly declared
, “there’s an effort underway to reassess the 36th President of the United States and to put some of the focus back on an issue that improved the lives of millions of Americans.”
That effort, it turns out, is largely one of the media themselves. In “How LBJ Saved the Civil Rights Act,” a long piece for The Atlantic, Michael O’Donnell casts Johnson as the tireless and courageous hero of the bill: “Days after Kennedy’s murder, Johnson displayed the type of leadership on civil rights that his predecessor lacked and that the other branches could not possibly match. He made the bold and exceedingly risky decision to champion the stalled civil-rights bill.”
At the summit, Politico’s Todd Purdum moderated a panel on the relationship between Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. and averred that, despite Johnson’s staunch opposition to previous civil-rights bills when Johnson was Senate majority leader, when he was vice president “his convictions hardened” to the point that he thought “that the issue had to be addressed if the country had any hope of living up to its founding creed.”
(Whether that was LBJ’s primary motive is a matter of some dispute. Kevin Williamson outraged liberal media in a 2012 piece in which he attacked “the popular but indefensible belief that the two major U.S. political parties somehow ‘switched places’ vis-à-vis protecting the rights of black Americans, a development believed to be roughly concurrent with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the rise of Richard Nixon.” Williamson contended that LBJ’s motive for championing civil rights wasn’t to fulfill the founding creed but to reorganize the Democratic party’s political base.)
But the point of the LBJ celebrations this year and next is not to canonize Johnson as defender of black Americans. It is to hold him up as a champion for progress, albeit imperfect, and declare that the struggle for civil rights isn’t over and that the memory of LBJ should inspire us to carry on his work. In his remarks at the summit Tuesday, Jimmy Carter lamented that “we’re pretty much dormant now. We accept self-congratulations about the wonderful 50th anniversary — which is wonderful — but we feel like Lyndon Johnson did it and we don’t have to do anything anymore.” The feeling was echoed by Representative John Lewis (D., Ga.), a veteran of the civil-rights movement, who scolded today’s youth for their lack of concern. “You’re just too quiet,” he said. “You need to make some noise.”