Secret service agents survey the grounds from the roofs of all buildings in the periphery. The growing crowd of protesters expressing sentiments for improved immigration policy anxiously wait on the facade of the Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) Presidential Library, singing songs of equality and chanting powerful statements about deportation. The protesters anticipate the arrival of President Barack Obama, the keynote speaker of the Civil Rights Summit, with the hopes that he will acknowledge their cries for change. History unfolded during this three-day event, which also showcased speeches and conversations with former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush about the importance of civil rights in America.
“I picture [LBJ] standing there, taking up the entire door frame looking out over the South Lawn in a quiet moment — and ask[ing] himself what the true purpose of his office was for, what was the endpoint of his ambitions,” Obama said. “He would reach back in his own memory and he’d remember his own experience with want.”
All four presidents said that they are in awe of the civil rights progress that President Johnson has made and feel that it is important that his legacy will carry on forever. The Summit was held on April 8-10 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of President LBJ’s administration and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Because of the Civil Rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody — not all at once, but they swung open,” Obama said. “Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos; and Asians and Native Americans; and gay Americans and Americans with a disability. They swung open for you, and they swung open for me. And that’s why I’m standing here today — because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”
Although society has come a long way since 1964 in terms of civil rights, Obama says there is still room for improvement. Carter, Bush, and Clinton agree that although we have made social progress, the civil rights movement cannot be slowed down.
“LBJ was nothing if not a realist. He was well aware that the law alone isn’t enough to change hearts and minds,” Obama said. “A full century after Lincoln’s time, he said, ‘Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.’”
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a piece of legislation, the presidents said that it encouraged equality in a way that had never been done before in America. The act created a pivotal change in history that at first was rather controversial and caused uproars across the nation. But today, the Civil Rights Act is considered to create the basis for our society, and allows citizens to live the way in which they do. Obama said that although the act has brought us a long way, we must remain momentous and not allow ourselves to become stuck in time. He said that there is still progress to be made.
“We are here today because we know we cannot be complacent,” Obama said. “For history travels not only forwards; history can travel backwards, history can travel sideways. And securing the gains this country has made requires the vigilance of its citizens. Our rights, our freedoms — they are not given. They must be won. They must be nurtured through struggle and discipline, and persistence and faith.”
Carter focused on the inequalities between men and women as well as the lack of effort by Americans to change things in the United States. Other presidents touched upon these topics but each brought a different outlook to the summit. President Bush focused on education, in particular with children and minorities. Bush said that education remains to be one of the biggest inequalities in modern day society. He said that the average reading score for a white student is the same for an African American student at age 17, and that this four-year disparity should call America to take action.
“The achievement gap between whites and minorities have narrowed,” Bush said. “During the last 50 years, education progress has been generally positive, but completely insufficient. Education in America is no longer legally separate, but it is still not effectively equal. Quality education for everyone of every background is one of the most urgent civil rights issues of our time. From Little Rock Central High School to the University of Mississippi, the fight for civil rights took place in educational settings. Education provides the skills necessary to expand horizons and allow for economic success. In so doing, we secure our democratic way life.”
Guests of the Summit, such as civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, Johnson’s two daughters, and various speakers who discussed civil rights in a series of panels on things like gay rights, immigration, and education. Jackson said that because of the racial and educational inequalities that we have seen in our nation’s history, and to a lesser extent, in modern society, American minorities remained to negatively affected.
“Segregation gap has shrunk but the disparity gap has widened,” Jackson said. “We can’t have more and more making less and less and less and less making more and more.”
Throughout most presidencies in American history, inequality has remained to be an issue. This inequality has forced different presidents to work together, despite their political standpoint, in order to find an effective solution. Obama said that he is grateful for having the privilege of working with presidents past, because in law cooperation is key if one expecting progress to occur.
“Those of us who have had the singular privilege to hold the office of the Presidency know well that progress in this country can be hard and it can be slow, frustrating and sometimes you’re stymied,” Obama said. “The office humbles you. You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision.”
The our presidents at the summit said that within the past 50 years an ample amount of progress has been made and that The Civil Rights Act has changed our society from a place of complete segregation to a place where everybody is given equal opportunity. Obama said that since Johnson’s presidency the progress that has been charted has made dramatic change in a short period of time, which should encourage the nation to keep striving for equality in all aspects of life.
“We have proved that great progress is possible,” Obama said. “We know how much still remains to be done. And if our efforts continue, and if our will is strong, and if our hearts are right, and if courage remains our constant companion, then, my fellow Americans, I am confident, we shall overcome.”
story by Willow Higgins, Zia Lyle and Madeline Goulet