Mark K. Updegrove is Director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
The first time a sitting President came to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library was on May 21, 1971, when President Richard Nixon boarded Air Force One and journeyed to the campus of the University of Texas at Austin to help former President Johnson dedicate the library to the American people.
It had been a little more than two years since Johnson had yielded the Oval Office to Nixon, and Johnson’s place in history was very much in the balance.
The war in Vietnam that Johnson had escalated and that continued to divide the nation hung balefully over his legacy. This, despite the profusion of landmark laws LBJ left in his wake, including the passage of a triumvirate of seminal civil rights legislation: the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
As library’s inauguration played out, the voices of 2,100 Vietnam protesters rumbled in the distance, their chants of “No more war!” carried by 25-mile-an-hour winds that swirled throughout the day.
On April 10, 2014, when Barack Obama became the second sitting President to visit the LBJ Library, the weather, which topped out at 88 degrees, was far less tempestuous—and Lyndon Johnson’s legacy had become far clearer.
The President had come to the library, along with former Presidents Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush, to take part in the Civil Rights Summit, a three-day conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, and gender.
Their participation bespoke the importance of civil rights in our country’s long, troubled journey toward fulfilling the promise etched in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” It also marked a growing appreciation for what has become the bigger part of legacy, as each of the Presidents paid tribute to LBJ’s courage and conviction in the cause of civil rights.
The summit not only celebrated America’s progress in civil rights in the half a century since the Civil Rights Act was signed but also addressed the civil rights issues of our times.
Icons of the civil rights movement like Julian Bond, John Lewis, and Andrew Young held the stage with those who, along with them, are making a difference today.
Former legal rivals Ted Olson and David Boies discussed why they joined forces to mount a Supreme Court challenge against Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that would ban gay marriage in California.
George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, and Democratic Congressman George Miller talked about their efforts toward the passage of “No Child Left Behind” and where education reform is needed today.
Sports legends Jim Brown and Bill Russell looked at race when they dominated their sports in the 1960s and the issues athletes face today.
LBJ would have wanted the summit to look to the future. “We are not caretakers of the past,” he said, “we are charged with the construction of tomorrow.”
Through educational programming, all Presidential libraries are helping to meet LBJ’s charge. The Civil Rights Summit is just one example of the remarkable work the National Archives and all the Presidential libraries have done throughout their histories to shape the national dialogue.
I have been asked a number of times since the summit what memory burns the brightest. There are many. But the most prominent is of sitting on stage, John Lewis and Michelle Obama to my immediate right, watching President Obama address the audience, as he said these words:
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.
Lyndon Johnson could have said it no better.
For more on the Civil Rights Summit, go to www.civilrightssummit.org.