Point Austin: Stayed on Freedom

Considering the LBJ legacy, and our own

Point Austin

Without Lyndon Johnson, no Barack Obama.

That's one obvious way to consider the legacy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (initiated by John F. Kennedy; strengthened, lobbied through Congress, and signed by LBJ), this week being celebrated at the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Lib­rary. Expect President Oba­ma himself to acknowledge that fact on Thurs­day morning, in his summit address.

For those who don't care for Democrats, or consider all politicians irredeemably corrupt – the latter a self-justifying and irresponsible cynicism – perhaps that doesn't matter much. But for anyone who lived through the last 50 years, the civil rights movement and civil rights laws initiated an irrevocable transformation of American life – imperfect, unfinished, still under siege, but in principle, and to a great degree in substance, extending basic human rights to millions of people in the U.S. who had lived as second-class citizens (or worse) for several hundred years.

As I write Tuesday evening, I'm listening online to former President Jimmy Carter discuss his personal, lived experience of the civil rights movement as well as current discrimination (in all forms) against women. Earlier today, panels discussed the progress of gay rights (most specifically, marriage equality); and the place of immigration policy in this context (with former Mis­sis­sippi Gov. Haley Bar­bour acknowledging that deporting millions of undocumented immi­grants is neither possible nor desirable); and Mavis Staples and Graham Nash each addressed the importance of music in the movement.

The 1964 Act abolished (in law) most forms of racial segregation; it was followed in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act, a tremendous step forward in voting opportunity and equality, now under reactionary attack by the Republican Party and the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1968 came another Civil Rights Act (aka the Fair Housing Act), this iteration establishing (again, in law) equal housing opportunity. As a group, these laws are American landmarks of 100 years of social activism and social change.

A Complicated History

So it is certainly right for the LBJ Library to celebrate Johnson's role in institutionalizing civil rights in U.S. law, while not requiring us to subscribe to the Great Man Theory of History. Were it not for decades of protest, activism, organization, and people willingly laying down their lives for freedom – Martin Luther King Jr. being one among many – none of these laws would have come to fruition. Beyond that, reactive explosions of violence were also inevitable, as Johnson himself reportedly said after the riots that followed MLK's 1968 assassination: "I don't know why we're so surprised. When you put your foot on a man's neck and hold him down for 300 years, and then you let him up, what's he going to do? He's going to knock your block off."

For a long time, many of us could only recall and judge Johnson as the villain (if not the original architect) of the war in Vietnam. That's a permanent, terrible scar on his legacy – and it prepared and prefigured more recent failed imperial adventures. Yet it took a president schooled in Southern and Texas politics – who began as a schoolteacher to minority children – to break the South's rigid hold on black American life. Fifty years later, the Obama presidency is both a high-water mark and a challenge to the meaning of civil rights.

We Shall Not Be Moved

There is so much more work to do.

No longer racially segregated by law, America's cities (including Austin) are now increasingly segregated by class and access to economic opportunity. To consider just three bitter examples: The steady, intentional defunding of the public school system has accompanied literal resegregation of public and private schools, while steadily dimming the prospects of minority children. Secondly, in higher education, there's the spectacle of Edward Blum's misnamed "Project on Fair Representation" – underwritten by right-wing foundations such as the Amer­ican Enterprise Institute and sustained by an increasingly reactionary judiciary – which is currently advertising online for student plaintiffs willing to help reverse the small progress that has been made over decades to desegregate university education, all in the name of "color blindness."

Finally, the full force, state-by-state and national judicial assault on the Voting Rights Act has not only blocked political and legislative progress across the country (especially in the South, including Texas), it has undermined the achievements promised by the other civil rights legislation. This rearguard action to obstruct minority voters has allowed reactionary politicians to serve long beyond their time; how long they can continue to hold out depends largely on whether a renewed civil rights movement can re-gather the momentum to pressure all public institutions to truly advance the promises of a half-century of civil rights legislation.

There are those who argue, preposterously but even in federal courtrooms, that the presidential election of Barack Obama proved the end of racism in America. Oba­ma's legacy, like Johnson's, is a complicated one, and I'm eager to hear what he has to say this week about being expected to personally embody all the hopes and dreams of 100 years of civil rights activism and racial progress. Amidst all the other institutional obligations of a U.S. president, it's a curious and heavy burden to bear.

In February of 2007 on Town Lake, Obama described with professorial ease the complex, intertwined history of abolitionism, women's suffrage, unionism, and civil rights, summed up in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Our struggle continues.

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