thank you. thank you very much. (applause.) thank you so much. please,please, have aseat. thank you.
what a singular honor it is forme to be here today. i want to thank,first and foremost, thejohnson family for giving us this opportunity and thegraciousness with which michelle and ihave been received.
we came down a little bit latebecause we were upstairs looking at some of the exhibits andsome of theprivate offices that were used by president johnson and mrs. johnson. and michellewas in particular interested to-- of a recording in which lady bird is critiquing presidentjohnson’sperformance. (laughter.) and she said, come, come, you need to listento this. (laughter.) and she pressed the button and nodded herhead. some things do not change --(laughter) -- even 50 years later.
to all the members of congress,the warriors for justice, the elected officials andcommunity leaders who arehere today -- i want to thank you.
four days into his suddenpresidency -- and the night before he would address a jointsession of thecongress in which he once served -- lyndon johnson sat around a table withhisclosest advisors, preparing his remarks to a shattered and grieving nation.
he wanted to call on senators andrepresentatives to pass a civil rights bill -- the mostsweeping sincereconstruction. and most of his staffcounseled him against it. they said itwashopeless; that it would anger powerful southern democrats and committeechairmen; that itrisked derailing the rest of his domestic agenda. and one particularly bold aide said he didnotbelieve a president should spend his time and power on lost causes, howeverworthy they mightbe. to which, it issaid, president johnson replied, “well, what the hell’s the presidencyfor?” (laughter and applause.) what the hell’s the presidency for if not tofight for causes youbelieve in?
today, as we commemorate the 50thanniversary of the civil rights act, we honor the menand women who made itpossible. some of them are heretoday. we celebrate giants like johnlewisand andrew young and julian bond. werecall the countless unheralded americans, blackand white, students andscholars, preachers and housekeepers -- whose names are etched notonmonuments, but in the hearts of their loved ones, and in the fabric of thecountry theyhelped to change.
but we also gather here, deep inthe heart of the state that shaped him, to recall one giantman’s remarkableefforts to make real the promise of our founding: “we hold these truths to beself-evident,that all men are created equal.”
those of us who have had thesingular privilege to hold the office of the presidency knowwell that progressin this country can be hard and it can be slow, frustrating andsometimesyou’re stymied. the office humblesyou. you’re reminded daily that in thisgreatdemocracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, boundby decisions madeby those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those whowill follow to fully vindicate yourvision.
but the presidency also affords aunique opportunity to bend those currents -- by shapingour laws and by shapingour debates; by working within the confines of the world as it is, butalso byreimagining the world as it should be.
this was president johnson’sgenius. as a master of politics and thelegislative process, hegrasped like few others the power of government tobring about change.
lbj was nothing if not arealist. he was well aware that the lawalone isn’t enough to changehearts and minds. a full century after lincoln’s time, he said, “until justice is blind tocolor, untileducation is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcernedwith the color of men’s skins,emancipation will be a proclamation but not afact.”
he understood laws couldn’taccomplish everything. but he also knewthat only the law couldanchor change, and set hearts and minds on a differentcourse. and a lot of americansneededthe law’s most basic protections at that time. as dr. king said at the time, “it may betrue that the law can’t make a manlove me but it can keep him from lynching me, and i thinkthat’s pretty important.” (applause.)
and passing laws was what lbjknew how to do. no one knew politics andno one lovedlegislating more than president johnson. he was charming when he needed to be,ruthlesswhen required. (laughter.) he could wear you down with logic andargument. he could horsetrade, and hecould flatter. “you come with me on thisbill,” he would reportedly tell a keyrepublican leader from my home stateduring the fight for the civil rights bill, “and 200 yearsfrom now,schoolchildren will know only two names: abraham lincoln and everett dirksen!” (laughter.) and he knew thatsenators would believe things like that. (laughter and applause.)
president johnson likedpower. he liked the feel of it, thewielding of it. but that hunger washarnessedand redeemed by a deeper understanding of the human condition; by a sympathyforthe underdog, for the downtrodden, for the outcast. and it was a sympathy rooted in hisownexperience.
as a young boy growing up in thetexas hill country, johnson knew what being poor feltlike. “poverty was so common,” he would later say,“we didn’t even know it had a name.” (laughter.) the family homedidn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing. everybody workedhard, including the children. president johnson had known the metallictaste of hunger; the feelof a mother’s calloused hands, rubbed raw fromwashing and cleaning and holding a householdtogether. his cousin ava remembered sweltering daysspent on her hands and knees in thecotton fields, with lyndon whisperingbeside her, “boy, there’s got to be a better way to make aliving thanthis. there’s got to be a better way.”
it wasn’t until years later whenhe was teaching at a so-called mexican school in a tiny townin texas that hecame to understand how much worse the persistent pain of poverty could beforother races in a jim crow south. oftentimes his students would show up to class hungry.and when he’d visit their homes, he’d meetfathers who were paid slave wages by the farmersthey worked for. those children were taught, he would latersay, “that the end of life is in a beetrow, a spinach field, or a cottonpatch.”
deprivation and discrimination --these were not abstractions to lyndon baines johnson.he knew that poverty and injustice are asinseparable as opportunity and justice are joined.so that was in him from an early age.
now, like any of us, he was not aperfect man. his experiences in ruraltexas may havestretched his moral imagination, but he was ambitious, veryambitious, a young man in a hurryto plot his own escape from poverty and tochart his own political career. and inthe jim crowsouth, that meant not challenging convention. during his first 20 years in congress,heopposed every civil rights bill that came up for a vote, once calling the pushfor federallegislation “a farce and a sham.” he was chosen as a vice presidential nominee in part becauseof hisaffinity with, and ability to deliver, that southern white vote. and at the beginning of thekennedy administration,he shared with president kennedy a caution towards racialcontroversy.
but marchers kept marching. four little girls were killed in achurch. bloody sundayhappened. the winds of change blew. and when the time came, when lbj stood in theovaloffice -- i picture him standing there, taking up the entire doorframe,looking out over thesouth lawn in a quiet moment -- and asked himself what thetrue purpose of his office was for,what was the endpoint of his ambitions, hewould reach back in his own memory and he’dremember his own experience withwant.
and he knew that he had a uniquecapacity, as the most powerful white politician from thesouth, to not merelychallenge the convention that had crushed the dreams of so many, buttoultimately dismantle for good the structures of legal segregation. he’s the only guy whocould do it -- and heknew there would be a cost, famously saying the democratic party may“have lostthe south for a generation.”
that’s what his presidency wasfor. that’s where he meets hismoment. and possessed withan iron will,possessed with those skills that he had honed so many years in congress,pushedand supported by a movement of those willing to sacrifice everything for theirownliberation, president johnson fought for and argued and horse traded andbullied and persuadeduntil ultimately he signed the civil rights act into law.
and he didn’t stop there -- eventhough his advisors again told him to wait, again told himlet the dust settle,let the country absorb this momentous decision. he shook them off. “themeat inthe coconut,” as president johnson would put it, was the voting rights act, sohe foughtfor and passed that as well. immigration reform came shortly after. and then, a fair housingact. andthen, a health care law that opponents described as “socialized medicine” thatwouldcurtail america’s freedom, but ultimately freed millions of seniors fromthe fear that illnesscould rob them of dignity and security in their goldenyears, which we now know today asmedicare. (applause.)
what president johnson understoodwas that equality required more than the absence ofoppression. it required the presence of economicopportunity. he wouldn’t be as eloquentasdr. king would be in describing that linkage, as dr. king moved intomobilizing sanitationworkers and a poor people’s movement, but he understoodthat connection because he hadlived it. a decent job, decent wages, health care -- those, too, were civil rightsworth fightingfor. an economy wherehard work is rewarded and success is shared, that was his goal. and heknew, as someone who had seen the newdeal transform the landscape of his texas childhood,who had seen thedifference electricity had made because of the tennessee valley authority,thetransformation concretely day in and day out in the life of his own family, heunderstood thatgovernment had a role to play in broadening prosperity to allthose who would strive for it.
“we want to open the gates toopportunity,” president johnson said, “but we are also goingto give all ourpeople, black and white, the help they need to walk through those gates.”
now, if some of this soundsfamiliar, it’s because today we remain locked in this same greatdebate aboutequality and opportunity, and the role of government in ensuring each. as wastrue 50 years ago, there are those whodismiss the great society as a failed experiment and anencroachment onliberty; who argue that government has become the true source of all thatailsus, and that poverty is due to the moral failings of those who suffer fromit. there are alsothose who argue,john, that nothing has changed; that racism is so embedded in our dnathatthere is no use trying politics -- the game is rigged.
but such theories ignore history. yes, it’s true that, despite laws like thecivil rights act,and the voting rights act and medicare, our society is stillracked with division and poverty.yes,race still colors our political debates, and there have been governmentprograms that havefallen short. in atime when cynicism is too often passed off as wisdom, it’s perhaps easytoconclude that there are limits to change; that we are trapped by our ownhistory; and politicsis a fool’s errand, and we’d be better off if we rollback big chunks of lbj’s legacy, or at least ifwe don’t put too much of ourhope, invest too much of our hope in our government.
i reject such thinking. (applause.) not just because medicare and medicaid have liftedmillions fromsuffering; not just because the poverty rate in this nation would be farworsewithout food stamps and head start and all the great society programs thatsurvive tothis day. i reject suchcynicism because i have lived out the promise of lbj’s efforts. becausemichelle has lived out the legacy ofthose efforts. because my daughters havelived out thelegacy of those efforts. because i and millions of my generation were in a position to takethebaton that he handed to us. (applause.)
because of the civil rightsmovement, because of the laws president johnson signed, newdoors ofopportunity and education swung open for everybody -- not all at once, but theyswungopen. not just blacks and whites,but also women and latinos; and asians and nativeamericans; and gay americansand americans with a disability. theyswung open for you, andthey swung open for me. and that’s why i’m standing here today -- because of thoseefforts,because of that legacy. (applause.)
and that means we’ve got a debtto pay. that means we can’t afford to becynical. half acentury later, the lawslbj passed are now as fundamental to our conception of ourselves andourdemocracy as the constitution and the bill of rights. they are foundational; an essentialpiece ofthe american character.
but we are here today because weknow we cannot be complacent. forhistory travels notonly forwards; history can travel backwards, history cantravel sideways. and securing thegainsthis country has made requires the vigilance of its citizens. our rights, our freedoms --they are notgiven. they must be won. they must be nurtured through struggle anddiscipline,and persistence and faith.
and one concern i have sometimesduring these moments, the celebration of the signing ofthe civil rights act,the march on washington -- from a distance, sometimes thesecommemorations seeminevitable, they seem easy. all the painand difficulty and struggle anddoubt -- all that is rubbed away. and we look at ourselves and we say, oh,things are just toodifferent now; wecouldn’t possibly do what was done then -- these giants, whattheyaccomplished. and yet, they were men andwomen, too. it wasn’t easy then. it wasn’tcertain then.
still, the story of america is astory of progress. however slow, howeverincomplete, howeverharshly challenged at each point on our journey, howeverflawed our leaders, however manytimes we have to take a quarter of a loaf orhalf a loaf -- the story of america is a story ofprogress. and that’s true because of men like presidentlyndon baines johnson. (applause.
in so many ways, he embodiedamerica, with all our gifts and all our flaws, in all ourrestlessness and allour big dreams. this man -- born intopoverty, weaned in a world full ofracial hatred -- somehow found within himselfthe ability to connect his experience with thebrown child in a small texastown; the white child in appalachia; the black child in watts. aspowerful as he became in that oval office,he understood them. he understood whatit meant tobe on the outside. and hebelieved that their plight was his plight too; that his freedomultimately waswrapped up in theirs; and that making their lives better was what the hellthepresidency was for. (applause.)
and those children were on hismind when he strode to the podium that night in the housechamber, when hecalled for the vote on the civil rights law. “it never occurred to me,” he said, “in my fondest dreams that i mighthave the chance to help the sons and daughters of thosestudents” that he hadtaught so many years ago, “and to help people like them all overthiscountry. but now i do have thatchance. and i’ll let you in on a secret-- i mean to use it.and i hope that youwill use it with me.” (applause.)
that was lbj’s greatness. that’s why we remember him. and if there is one thing that heand thisyear’s anniversary should teach us, if there’s one lesson i hope that malia andsasha andyoung people everywhere learn from this day, it’s that with enougheffort, and enoughempathy, and enough perseverance, and enough courage, peoplewho love their country canchange it.
in his final year, presidentjohnson stood on this stage, racked with pain, battered by thecontroversies ofvietnam, looking far older than his 64 years, and he delivered what would behisfinal public speech.
“we have proved that greatprogress is possible,” he said. “we knowhow much still remainsto be done. andif our efforts continue, and if our will is strong, and if our hearts areright, and ifcourage remains our constant companion, then, my fellowamericans, i am confident, weshall overcome.” (applause.)
we shall overcome. we, the citizens of the united states. like dr. king, like abrahamlincoln, likecountless citizens who have driven this country inexorably forward, presidentjohnsonknew that ours in the end is a story of optimism, a story ofachievement and constant strivingthat is unique upon this earth. he knew because he had lived that story. he believed thattogether we can build anamerica that is more fair, more equal, and more free than the oneweinherited. he believed we make our owndestiny. and in part because of him, wemust believeit as well.
thank you. god bless you. god bless the united states of america. (applause.)
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