Newspaper article International New York Times

Obama Cheers L.B.J. and Civil Rights Act ; Law's 50th Anniversary Comes as Bias Continues to Shape U.S. Society

Newspaper article International New York Times

Obama Cheers L.B.J. and Civil Rights Act ; Law's 50th Anniversary Comes as Bias Continues to Shape U.S. Society

Article excerpt

The 50th anniversary comes as issues of rights and discrimination continue to shape the national debate.

President Obama paid tribute on Thursday to the Civil Rights Act a half century after its passage transformed American society and ultimately paved the way for the day when the United States might have an African-American man serve in the Oval Office.

In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark law, Mr. Obama said the push for equality and liberty had opened doors of opportunity for millions of Americans. "They swung open for you and they swung open for me," he said. "That's why I'm standing here today."

Speaking at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum here, Mr. Obama said champions of civil rights should not succumb to cynicism in a cynical age. "Yes, it's true that despite laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, our society is still racked with division and poverty," he said. "Yes, race still colors our political debates and there have been government programs that have fallen short."

But, he added, referring to himself and his family: "I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of L.B.J.'s efforts, because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts, because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts."

Speaking at a conference attended by three former presidents to mark the anniversary of the law, Mr. Obama lavished praise on Johnson, a leader to whom disappointed liberals sometimes compare him unfavorably.

"He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required," Mr. Obama said. "He could wear you down with logic and argument, he could horse trade and he could flatter."

Mr. Obama implicitly linked his own health care program to the legacy of Johnson's creation of Medicare and Medicaid. Describing Johnson's legislative accomplishments, Mr. Obama noted with a sly tone that the former president, who died in 1973, had created "a health care law that opponents described as socialized medicine."

Mr. Obama and his wife toured the museum before his speech, accompanied by Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, an icon of the civil rights era. Mark K. Updegrove, the library director, showed the president copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment ending slavery and signed by Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act signed by Johnson.

The conference, tied to the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act under Mr. Johnson, was addressed on Tuesday by Jimmy Carter and on Wednesday by Bill Clinton. George W. Bush was to address the group on Thursday, hours after Mr. Obama.

The event came at a time when issues of rights and discrimination continue to shape the national debate. Mr. Obama has presided over a period of rapid change in the acceptance of gay and lesbian couples, for example. When he took office, just two states permitted same- sex marriage; today 17 and the District of Columbia do.

Among those who opposed same-sex marriage when he came to office was Mr. Obama, but he switched sides in 2012. He also ended the don't-ask-don't-tell restrictions on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. …

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