AUSTIN, Texas — Barack Obama was 2 years old when Lyndon Baines Johnson sat in the East Room of the White House with Martin Luther King Jr. and signed the Civil Rights Act, putting an end to an America where schools, restaurants and water fountains were divided by race. Half a century later, the first black man to become president is commemorating what’s been accomplished in his lifetime and recommitting the nation to fighting the deep inequalities that remain.
Obama takes the podium on Thursday afternoon on the third and final day of a 50th anniversary summit that’s bringing four living presidents, civil rights leaders and cultural icons to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. The celebration comes as Johnson’s legacy, four decades removed from the end of the Vietnam War, is being revisited, with his prolific domestic achievements serving as a reminder of how little Washington seems to accomplish today.
For Obama, who was criticized by some African-Americans in his first term for doing too little to help minorities, the commemoration dovetails with a focus on inequality and economic opportunity that has become an early hallmark of Obama’s second term with modest success. Democrats have seized on the broader theme as their battle cry for the election year.
Lingering injustices in the U.S. notwithstanding, the significance of Obama’s participation in Thursday’s ceremony isn’t lost on Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who withstood violence and arrest during the civil rights marches through Alabama in the mid-1960s.