By Darwin Campbell, African-American News and Issues
“Well, What the Hell’s the Presidency For?” – Lyndon B. Johnson
AUSTIN-The real question is not what America accomplished in the battle for civil rights over the past 50 years- It is whether it will survive the next 50 years and beyond.
That was the message President Barack Obama sent to the nation and those attending the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“The story of America is a story of progress… true because of men like Lyndon Johnson,” Obama said. “…Civil Rights made doors swing open for all. Black, White, Latino, Gay, for you and for me. I stand here today because of that legacy and those efforts.”
Introduced by the legendary Civil Rights champion and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, President Obama keynoted the end of a three-day summit commemorating the landmark law that ended racial discrimination in public places at the LBJ Library. The anniversary has spurred a new interest in Johnson’s domestic agenda.
Barack H. Obama is the 44th President of the United States.
His story is the American story — values from the heartland, a middle-class upbringing in a strong family, hard work and education as the means of getting ahead, and the conviction that a life so blessed should be lived in service to others.
With a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, President Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. He was raised with help from his grandfather, who served in Patton’s army, and his grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle management at a bank.
After working his way through college with the help of scholarships and student loans, President Obama moved to Chicago, where he worked with a group of churches to help rebuild communities devastated by the closure of local steel plants.
He went on to attend law school, where he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. Upon graduation, he returned to Chicago to help lead a voter registration drive, teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and remain active in his community.
President Johnson was president from 1963 and 1969. He is remembered for stabilizing a traumatized nation after the assassination of president John Kennedy, and for sweeping social reform legislation including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the introduction of health care programs for the poor and elderly.
Using a famous quote from former President Johnson, Obama pointed to the heart of the civil rights issue and challenged society to think about how every American is responsible to do the right things to help make America better.
The Civil Rights Movement was work for those fighting the battle who made great sacrifices, some even losing their lives on the uncertain promise that civil rights, integration and voting rights would become reality. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Thurgood Marshall and thousands of others played significant roles in helping convince President Johnson to understand the need for new civil rights legislation in America.
Obama tapped into the spirit of Johnson’s love for country and compassion for the poor and needy to show the proper way a leader is suppose handle the power bestowed upon him.
In his tribute to LBJ, Obama called on Americans to draw on Johnson’s legacy to help America become better.
Obama said Johnson was the right man for the time and overcoming the odds of poverty and the political pressures of southern Democrats who wanted Johnson to scuttle the idea giving Blacks equal rights and voting rights under the law.
“Lyndon Johnson’s genius was his ability to grasp the power of government and use it to bring about change,” he said. “He was a charming man and ruthless when needed. He used logic, was a horse trader and a flatterer.”
He described Johnson as a man whose firmness in stressing civil rights for all forged the kind of revolutionary ideas that became law and changed the nation forever.
LBJ was a son of the south, weaned on racism, a rising star in his party, but when he became president was faced with the ugly realities of how Black people were being disrespected, mistreated and their rights trampled on in violent ways. It was growing up poor and his connection to the poor and needy children as a teacher that touched the very center of his soul.
Obama said Johnson’s leadership and compassion was a very important factor in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other key legislation following it.
“He understood government has a role to play,” Obama said. “Helping people strive for prosperity and opening gates of opportunity and helping them walk through those gates.”
Unfortunately, He noted that there are those in America promoting ideas in opposition to Johnson contending that America is trapped by its own history and would be better off rolling back LBJ’s legacy – Obama said it is a position he rejects.
“These rights and freedoms were won through faith, struggle and persistence,” he said. “We cannot be complacent. We must be vigilant. History can travel forward, backwards or sideways.”
The president made it clear that Johnson and other civil rights leaders have paved the way and set the example.
President Obama’s story proves the premise of “What the Hell’s the Presidency For”.
His years of public service are based around his unwavering belief in the ability to unite people around a politics of purpose.
In the Illinois State Senate, he passed the first major ethics reform in 25 years, cut taxes for working families, and expanded health care for children and their parents.
As a United States Senator, he reached across the aisle to pass groundbreaking lobbying reform, lock up the world’s most dangerous weapons, and bring transparency to government by putting federal spending online.
He was elected the 44th President of the United States on November 4, 2008, and sworn in on January 20, 2009.
He and his wife, Michelle, are the proud parents of two daughters, Malia and Sasha.
President Obama is proof that fairness and equality, if properly applied, in America can work for all Americans.
For civil rights gains to survive the next 50 years and beyond, every American must strive to be an active example, vote and fight to keep civil rights issues on the front burner and alive for future generations to come.
That is this generation’s charge and will be it’s greatest legacy.