The 2014 Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, April 8 -10, which celebrated passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, featured the voices of veterans of the civil rights struggle, including former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, Georgia Congressman John Lewis and former President Jimmy Carter, to political recipients of the Act’s passage like former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. The LBJ Library has posted photos and videos from each day of the event
Dispatches from the Civil Rights Summit 2014, Austin, Texas
By: NWU Member James Patterson: Diplomat, Writer, Speaker, Educator
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin in public accommodations including restaurants, hotels, theaters and retail businesses. The Act created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to ban workplace discrimination. Before the Act employers could legally exclude blacks from job openings with a simple “no Negroes.” Congressman John Lewis, who was brutally beaten at Selma in 1965, told participants “times have changed” but work needed to be done on civil rights, such as restoring important provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (The GOP-dominated Supreme Court struck down key provisions in 2013.)
Lewis said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “a living document” and the struggle goes on for equality and justice. Public furor over Johnson’s disastrous handling of Vietnam has somewhat abated, many say, and historians are looking at more positive aspects of his administration, especially his work on civil rights legislation. Summit planners said they hoped the event would help people see beyond Johnson’s failed Vietnam policy. That may not happen, however, as Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award winning author Robert Caro is currently at work on his fifth and final volume on Johnson and it may bring attention back to the president’s role in escalating the Vietnam War.
The Civil Rights Summit, though, was essentially a Vietnam Free Zone where there was nothing but praise for the late Texas president. Caro was absent from the Summit reportedly due to differences with planners over Johnson’s civil rights legacy. Also absent were members of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family. Reportedly, they are in legal disputes with each other and with some of the panelists over some of King’s personal items. Further, one family member claims Johnson was involved in the assassination of Dr. King. University of Texas Austin students were upset with planners. Reportedly, there were few Summit seats for students. An estimated 9,035 students applied for tickets and only 640 received them. The Lady Bird Johnson Auditorium at the LBJ Presidential Library seats only 967 people.
There were 46 panelists who spoke at the event. Summit planes invited controversial Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry but did not invite him to speak. As a result, Perry had “a schedule conflict” and could not attend. According to LBJ Library spokesperson Anne Wheeler, Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senators Ted Cruz, Texas, John Cornyn, Texas, Mitch McConnell, Kentucky, and Harry Reid, Nevada, were invited but could not attend. Similarly, GOP House Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi did not attend. In my view, Cruz, McConnell and Boehner would have likely drawn angry protesters, especially over their views on immigration reform. According to the Daily Texas, a UT-Austin newspaper, Social work freshman Addis Gezahegn said, “I would gladly miss class to be in the same room as the first black president of the United States. The only black person on the UT campus like 50 years ago carried a mop and a broom.”
On the last day of the Summit, President Obama spoke and Summit planners panicked when they realized the audience was, well, very light for his speech. They opened doors for students and even herded press from the Media Center into the auditorium. Summit planners had, they said, worked on this event for three years. Still, problems arose. One of the most embarrassing problems was the total exclusion of civil rights for the disabled from the agenda.
The landmark American with Disabilities Act of 1990, signed by former President George H.W. Bush, who did not attend the event, celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. At the very last minute, Summit planners added distinguished educator and disability rights advocate Lex Freidan to a panel on Civil Rights in the 21st Century. He had an important message and it is sad few heard it. Friedan’s name did not appear in the official Summit program. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, during his first twenty years in Congress, adamantly and wholeheartedly opposed all civil rights legislation. His Texas constituents opposed it and so did he. President Kennedy’s tragic assassination in Dallas in November 1963, the televised brutality and violence against blacks in the Deep South, Klan murders of white civil rights workers in Mississippi, and Dr. King’s compassioned plea for help in ending segregation, changed Lyndon Johnson and the course of our nation’s history.
Johnson was not perfect but when history called, he listened and acted to help end bigotry and discrimination. Few other Southern politicians heard history’s call at that time. As a youth in Alabama in 1964, LBJ was a hated man. Arizona’s Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional, was the white man’s savior. Fortunately, Goldwater lost in a landslide. He won Alabama by a Klanslide. Johnson famously predicted his signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would cost his party the South. Solidly Republican today, Alabama, like much of the South, is still resistant to civil rights for gays and marriage equality.
As Congressman John Lewis and other Civil Rights veterans said at the Summit, the Civil Rights struggle goes on for equality and justice. Like Johnson, the Civil Rights Summit was not a perfect event. It was, though, historic and its messages provided participants with the energy, enthusiasm and promise for the ongoing fight for a better and more just America.
About the Author:
James Patterson, who attended Alabama’s segregated schools in the 1970s, received a family education in civil rights. His father, a member of the Alabama National Guard, was federalized by President Kennedy for the integration of the University of Alabama in June 1963 and by President Johnson for service at Selma in March of 1965 to prevent violence by “domestic terrorists,” the Ku Klux Klan. Patterson is now a San Francisco-based writer and speaker.