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50 years on, honoring the Southern Democrat who spearheaded the Civil Rights Act

April 10, 2014 at 6:09 PM EDT
Half a century ago, Lyndon Johnson signed landmark legislation outlawing discrimination based on race, ethnicity and sex. At a summit honoring this chapter of Johnson’s legacy, President Obama applauded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for opening doors of opportunity for himself and other Americans, while former Presidents Clinton and Carter cautioned that challenges remain. Gwen Ifill reports.

GWEN IFILL: Now, a key moment in the fight for equality that still resonates half-a-century later.

FMR. PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole.


GWEN IFILL: President Lyndon Johnson speaking as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

The landmark legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, ethnicity and sex. Today, at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, one of the surviving heroes of that era, said, the presidential pen strokes on that July day, nearly 50 years ago, changed everything.

REP. JOHN LEWIS, D-Ga.: Without the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson and involvement of hundreds and thousands and millions of people in the civil rights movement, there would be no President Jimmy Carter, no President Bill Clinton, no President Barack Obama.

Lyndon Johnson, using his skills and his power, made this possible. When people say nothing had changed, I say come and walk in my shoes, and I will show you change.


GWEN IFILL: Just getting the bill passed was a momentous struggle. President John F. Kennedy proposed it the summer before his assassination. It didn’t become law until the following year, in 1964, when Johnson and a bipartisan group of lawmakers overcame what turned into a two-month Senate filibuster led by Southern Democrats.

In the decades since, that part of his legacy has often been overshadowed by the Vietnam War, but this week’s anniversary summit at the Johnson Library sought to change that.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Because I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts.

GWEN IFILL: In his keynote address today, President Obama’s remarks turned personal.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Because of the civil rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody. They swung open for you, and they swung open for me.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That’s why I’m standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy.


GWEN IFILL: Mr. Obama was one of four living presidents to address the three-day summit and praise the Texas Democrat who fought his own party.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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. He’s the only guy who could do it. And he knew there would be a cost, famously saying the Democratic Party may have lost the South for a generation.

GWEN IFILL: The president wasn’t the only one to caution that challenges remain.

Former President Jimmy Carter spoke Tuesday.

FMR. PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: 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.

GWEN IFILL: Former President Bill Clinton took on voting rights, criticizing last year’s Supreme Court decision that allowed states to impose new restrictions without federal approval.

FMR. PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: And all of a sudden, there are all these new barriers to voting to make it harder to vote. Is this what Martin Luther King gave his life for? Is this what Lyndon Johnson employed his legendary skills for?

GWEN IFILL: Former President George W. Bush, addressing the crowd this evening, is the summit’s final speaker.