Obama: Civil Rights Movement opened door for me

George Curry | 4/18/2014, 10:28 p.m.
With civil rights legends Andrew Young, John Lewis, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson looking on, President Barack Obama on Thursday ...
President Barack Obama David Hume Kennerly


AUSTIN – With civil rights legends Andrew Young, John Lewis, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson looking on, President Barack Obama on Thursday credited the Civil Rights Movement and landmark legislation signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s for paving the way for his becoming the nation’s first Black president.

Keynoting the three-day celebration at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in observance of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Obama said: “Today, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we honor the men and women who made it possible. Some of them are here today. We celebrate giants like John Lewis and Andrew Young and Julian Bond. We recall the countless unheralded Americans, Black and White, students and scholars, preachers and housekeepers – whose names are etched not on monuments, but in the hearts of their loved ones, and in the fabric of the country they helped to change.”

There is no better evidence of that change than his election, the president said.

“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 for 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,” he said to loud applause.

“And that means we’ve – got a debt to pay. That means we can’t afford to be cynical. Half-a-century later, the laws LBJ passed are now as fundamental to our conception of ourselves and our democracy as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are foundational; an essential piece of the American character.”

In addition to Obama, three former presidents – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – addressed the summit. Also participating were U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., former chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; former NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond, who served as SNCC’s communications director under Lewis and Andrew Young, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Jimmy Carter and executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lewis, Bond and Young were present at least two of the three days of the summit. Another civil rights activist of that time, Jesse L. Jackson, who headed SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, arrived on the last day of the conference and had no formal role in the celebration.

It was not clear if Obama knew Jackson was in the audience or that it would have mattered if he had known. Relations between the two Chicago-based leaders have been icy since July 2008 when Jackson was overheard saying in an off-camera television interview, “See, Barack’s been talking down to Black people … I want to cut his nuts off.”