President Obama delivered a rousing speech at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit Thursday afternoon as he celebrated the legacy of the man whom he credited with "swinging open" doors of opportunity for him.
While speaking to the audience about the impact of cynicism and how some think it's impossible for change to occur, Obama defiantly said that he "rejected" such notions because of the past president's work with the seemingly impossible-to-pass Civil Rights Act.
"I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of LBJ's efforts, because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts, because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts, because I and millions of my generation were in a position to take the baton that he handed to us," Obama said to an applauding audience on hand to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.
"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. Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos and Asians and Native Americans and gay Americans and Americans with a disability."
The president praised his predecessor's tenacity and political savvy in securing the votes he needed to fulfill his agenda.
"Passing laws is what LBJ knew how to do. No one knew politics and no one loved legislating more than President Johnson. He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required. He could wear you down with logic and argument, he could horse-trade and he could flatter," Obama said.
"He understood laws couldn't accomplish everything, but he also knew that only the law could anchor change and set hearts and minds on a different course," the president continued. "And a lot of Americans needed the law's most basic protections at that time. As Dr. King said at the time: 'It may be true that the law can't make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me. And I think that's pretty important.'"
Obama also acknowledged that Johnson wasn't a perfect man. He acknowledged the countless times Johnson blocked civil rights bills as a member of Congress running in the Jim Crow South. Obama also pointed to Johnson's thirst for power.
But the president credited Johnson's own harsh upbringing in rural Texas stricken by povert, as well as his experiences with the impoverished students he encountered as a teacher, for his ability to empathize and ultimately push forward with the struggle for his fellow man.
"Oftentimes his students would show up to class hungry. And when he'd visit their homes, he'd meet fathers who were paid slave wages by the farmers they worked for. Those children were taught, he would later say, that the end of life is in a beet row, a spinach field or a cotton patch," he said.
"Deprivation and discrimination, these were not abstractions to Lyndon Baines Johnson," Obama continued. "He knew that poverty and injustice are as inseparable as opportunity and justice are joined. So that was in him from an early age.
"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," Obama added.
"What President Johnson understood was that equality required more than the absence of oppression; it required the presence of economic opportunity," Obama said. "He wouldn't be as eloquent as Dr. King would be in describing that linkage as Dr. King moved into mobilizing sanitation workers and the poor people's movement, but he understood that connection because he had lived it."
Obama was not the only president to speak at the event; former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton made speeches on April 8 and 9, respectively. Former President George W. Bush is expected to speak later Thursday afternoon.