This July will mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, arguably the most important legislation of the Civil Rights Movement. While there were several key players who contributed to the landmark legislation, and many more nameless ones, President Lyndon Baines Johnson played an indisputably central role.
“Without Johnson’s support and skill, arm-twisting and vote-counting [the Civil Rights Act and other civil rights bills] would have never gotten through a Congress dominated by the Dixiecrats,” said Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, founding chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a civil rights activist who participated in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
To mark Johnson’s role and the bill’s anniversary, the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas will host a Civil Rights Summit from April 8 to April 10, a look back at the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and an examination of the civil rights issues still facing America and the world.
The summit will feature keynote addresses from former President Jimmy Carter on April 8 and former President Bill Clinton on April 9. An invitation has also been extended to President George W. Bush to deliver a keynote address on April 10.
Other participants include representatives of the Johnson administration and family, the media, and current and former elected officials. Members of academia and civil rights leaders present will include former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond; Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights biographer Taylor Branch; Diane Nash, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); civil rights leader Andrew Young, a former UN ambassador and mayor of Atlanta; Tom Johnson, former president of CNN and former deputy press secretary to President Johnson; and many more.
The Civil Rights Summit is a cornerstone event of a multi-year anniversary celebration of President Johnson's prodigious legislative legacy, which include the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and more.
“Fifty years ago, President Johnson’s vision for a more just and honorable America contributed to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the most transformational civil rights legislation since Reconstruction and a crucial step in the realization of America’s promise,” Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, said in a statement. “But his vision went far beyond ending racial discrimination. He believed that education, economic opportunity, health care, clean air and water, and access to the arts and humanities, among other things, were inherent civil rights for all Americans—and it's reflected in his legislative legacy.”
Johnson’s championing of these issues came from his background and also his recognition of the “necessity” and “political opportunity” highlighted by the “social crises created by the hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets, that is, the Civil Rights Movement,” Thelwell told the AFRO.
“As a young man, Johnson taught Mexican-American children in Texas,” Thelwell said. “Also, beneath his Southern veneer, he was a New Deal Democrat, a pragmatic politician who could see the direction of world events and also was, like most effective politicians, an opportunist.
“The murder of [President John] Kennedy and the inept and ridiculous campaign of Barry Goldwater enabled Johnson to be elected by a landslide in 1964,” Thelwell added. “And there was a freshman class of 43 Democratic congressmen who knew they owed their election to President Johnson’s coattails, and he used the power those votes gave him to sponsor and accomplish his Great Society legislation.”
During the summit and throughout the month of April, the “Cornerstones of Civil Rights” exhibit will be on display at the LBJ Presidential Library, linking the civil rights legacies of Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. Also, on several dates in April, the LBJ School of Public Affairs will present a civil rights film series. Several more commemorations are planned during the next 18 months.
More information on the summit may be found at www.civilrightssummit.org.