Austin Hosts Presidents Past And Present To Honor Civil Rights

President Obama is in Austin, Texas, honoring the legacy of President Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He's one of four U.S. presidents to appear at a civil rights summit this week.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

President Obama honored the legacy of President Lyndon Johnson and the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed 50 years ago this summer at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, this afternoon. Obama's speech came at a three-day civil rights summit the library is hosting this week, which also featured remarks from Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea was there for the speech and he joins me now. And Don, this was a full-throated burst of praise for Lyndon Johnson's legislative talents and the legacy of the act that he signed.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Absolutely. And a legacy that is not about Vietnam because that has been talked about for decades and decades and decades, that that failure on Lyndon Johnson's part. This is about the legislative record, civil rights and more. This speech was in praise of a man who, despite a Southern upbringing where he was steeped in segregation, who, once he became president, he immediately saw civil rights as a cause he needed to pursue.

President Obama talked about that meeting with President Johnson and his advisors right after President Kennedy had been killed and some were urging caution on civil rights. Give a listen.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And one particularly bold aide said he did not believe a president should spend his time and power on lost causes, however worthy they might be. To which it is said President Johnson replied, well, what the hell's the presidency for?

GONYEA: And he noted that President Johnson didn't stop there. What followed were landmark pieces of legislation on voting rights, fair housing and Medicare.

BLOCK: Right. And as you mentioned, Don, it was not hard to find echoes in the president's remarks, thinking back 50 years to Lyndon Johnson, echoes of the battles that he's fighting now and his own presidency.

GONYEA: Absolutely. And he didn't get into much detail on the battles he is facing, but he said that we can't just be nostalgic for a time when Congress and Washington and a movement could do big things, important things. The president talked about how we should be careful about how we look back. We can't assume that these games are won forever, for example.

And he said it's also worth noting that we can't just say, well, Dr. King and the civil rights movement and Johnson, these were giants so we can't accomplish something this big. He called for big dreams, but he also said that we can't assume that everything stays as it has been. Give a listen.

OBAMA: But we are here today because we know we cannot be complacent. 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.

BLOCK: Don, it's interesting to think of these two presidents, because President Obama has heard the criticism, why can't you just be more like LBJ? Why can't you bend lawmakers to your will, force things through Congress?

GONYEA: This is a conference and that has come up at virtually every panel in some form. Now, a lot of Johnson supporters here, but they cite the long experience Johnson had in the Congress and in the Senate, how he knew everybody in those chambers for having worked with them so long. That gives him an advantage in things like this.

His personality was also very different from President Obama's. Congress itself was very different. There were more moderates from each party that Johnson could reach out to and deal with. But again, it is kind of a lingering question, how difficult it is for a president to kind of impose his will on a Congress today.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Don Gonyea at the LBJ Library in Austin. Don, thanks very much.

GONYEA: Thank you.

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