AUSTIN (AP/KXAN) —”What the hell is the presidency for?” was the resonating theme of President Barack Obama’s address at the third day of the Civil Rights Summit on Thursday where, he honored Lyndon B. Johnson as a civil rights leader.
Reflecting on the unique power of the office he holds, Obama honored Lyndon B. Johnson as a leader who seized the presidency’s opportunity to bend the currents of history and fulfill America’s founding promises of equality – despite his advisers warnings against it.
“I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of those efforts,” Obama said.
The cynicism President Obama alluded to was the push-back President Johnson experienced while trying to pass civil rights legislation. Obama took the opportunity to draw similarities to the push-back he’s currently experiencing on the Affordable Care Act.
He drew on a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. to underscore the importance of not losing faith in politics during troubled times.
“It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me,” Obama said.
Amid the celebrations of the law, Obama cautioned that work remains in order to fulfill the goals of the legislation Johnson championed.
“President Johnson understood that equality requires more than the absence of oppression, it requires the presence of economic opportunity,” Obama said. “If this sounds familiar, it’s because today we remain locked in this same great debate about equality and opportunity.”
After 30 minutes of reflecting and reminiscing on the 50 years that have brought us to this moment, Obama concluded his speech with an answer to the question that opened it.
“Making [people's] lives better is what the hell the presidency is for,” he said.
Obama is the third of four presidents to speak this week with President Jimmy Carter and President Clinton preceding him. President George W. Bush will speak at the library on Thursday evening.
Before taking the stage, the Obamas took a tour of the Cornerstones of Civil Rights exhibit at the LBJ Library. He jokingly told the crowd Michelle’s favorite part of the exhibit was a clip of Lady Bird Johnson offering “constructive criticism” to Lyndon.
“Some things never change,” he said.
- Prior to the president’s address Thursday, at least three protesters were arrested for crossing into a secure area.
- Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo were also on hand — along with a crowd of about 100 people — at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The mayor greeted the president and the first lady when they got off Air Force One. Some of the people in the crowd were friends and family of the Secret Service.
- Breezy south winds that gusted up to 25 mph met the Obamas as they came down the stairs, swiftly lifting the first lady’s blue pleated skirt a bit. Still, the president thought quick to reach over and hold it down — both laughing as they continued down the ramp.
- This was Obama’s fourth time to land at ABIA. Obama visited the Austin area Last year when he went to Manor New Technology High School in May.
In-Depth: Items at the Cornerstones of Civil Rights exhibit
Before Obama’s Civil Rights Summit keynote address, there was first a stop at a very special exhibit.
The president and first lady walked up two flights of steps into the cavernous Great Hall alongside LBJ Presidential Library Director Mark Updegrove and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia.
At the top of the steps, Obama was overheard talking with Updegrove about the challenges of investing in museum exhibits to keep up-to-date with new technology and make them accessible in a digital age.
They then proceeded to a glass-enclosed display case featuring the “Cornerstones of Civil Rights” exhibit, home to a number of historical items.
- Copy of the Emancipation Proclamation
- 13th Amendment of the Constitution signed by President Lincoln
- Civil Rights Act of 1964 signed by President Johnson
- Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed by President Johnson
- Stovepipe hat worn by President Lincoln
- Stetson worn by President Johnson
- President Johnson’s annotated copy of his “We Shall Overcome” speech to Congress asking for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965