President Barack Obama was 2 years old when President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and put an end to schools, restaurants and water fountains separated by race.
Half a century later, the first black man to become president is commemorating the accomplishment and recommitting the nation to fighting the deep inequalities that remain.
Obama takes the podium 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.
For Obama, who was criticised 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, even though the advances Obama has secured are modest.
Democrats have seized on the broader theme as their battle cry for the election year.
Lingering injustices in the US notwithstanding, the significance of Obama’s participation in today’s ceremony isn’t lost on Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who withstood violence and arrest during the civil rights marches through Alabama in the mid-1960s.
“If somebody told me back in 1964 that a man of colour would be president of the United States, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re out of your mind, you don’t even know what you’re talking about,” Lewis said in an interview. “When people say to me nothing has changed, that feels like, come and walk in my shoes.”
The summit kicked off Tuesday with remarks from former President Jimmy Carter, who lamented residual racial inequality and Americans’ apathy about the problem.
Former President Bill Clinton followed yesterday, riffing on immigration and voting rights while warning that a modern-day reluctance to work together threatened to “put us back in the dustbin of old history.”
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were to appear at the summit today afternoon. Former President George W Bush will deliver the finale in the evening. “It’s probably the most important moment in the history of the library since LBJ died in 1973,” Mark Updegrove, the presidential library’s director, said of the 50th anniversary.