Editor’s note: This is a condensed version of the president’s remarks at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library on April 10, commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
Four days into his sudden presidency — and the night before he would address a joint session of the Congress in which he once served — Lyndon Johnson sat around a table with his closest advisors, preparing his remarks to a shattered and grieving nation. He wanted to call on senators and representatives to pass a civil rights bill, the most sweeping since Reconstruction. And most of his staff counseled him against it.
They said it was hopeless; that it would anger powerful southern Democrats and committee chairmen; that it risked derailing the rest of his domestic agenda. And one particularly bold aide said he did not believe a president should spend his time and power on lost causes, however worthy they might be. To which, it is said, President Johnson replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
What the hell’s the presidency for if not to fight for causes you believe in?
Today, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we honor the men and women who made it possible. We recall the countless unheralded Americans — black and white, students and scholars, preachers and housekeepers —whose names are etched not on monuments, but in the hearts of their loved ones, and in the fabric of the country they helped to change.
But we also gather here, deep in the heart of the state that shaped him, to recall one giant man’s remarkable efforts to make real the promise of our founding: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Those of us who have had the singular privilege to hold the office of the presidency know well that progress in this country can be hard, and it can be slow, frustrating and sometimes you’re stymied. The office humbles you. You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision.
But the presidency also affords a unique opportunity to bend those currents by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates; by working within the confines of the world as it is, but also by reimagining the world as it should be. This was President Johnson’s genius. As a master of politics and the legislative process, he grasped like few others the power of government to bring about change.
…And passing laws was what LBJ knew how to do. No one knew politics and no one loved legislating more than President Johnson. He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required. He could wear you down with logic and argument. He could horse trade, and he could flatter.
…And when the time came, when LBJ stood in the Oval Office and asked himself what the true purpose of his office was for, what was the endpoint of his ambitions, he would reach back in his own memory and he’d remember his own experience with want.
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. Yes, race still colors our political debates, and there have been government programs that have fallen short. In a time when cynicism is too often passed off as wisdom, it’s perhaps easy to conclude that there are limits to change; that we are trapped by our own history; and politics is a fool’s errand…I reject such thinking.
…Like Dr. King, like Abraham Lincoln, like countless citizens who have driven this country inexorably forward, President Johnson knew that ours in the end is a story of optimism, a story of achievement and constant striving that is unique upon this Earth. He knew because he had lived that story. He believed that together we can build an America that is more fair, more equal, and more free than the one we inherited.
He believed we make our own destiny. And in part because of him, we must believe it as well.