Where the Pharaohs had pyramids, American presidents have libraries. In the field of legacy-building, the primary improvement presidential libraries have over pyramids—apart from the lack of forced labor and looting—is that libraries are run by living human beings, who continue to advocate for the leader long after they’re gone.
The LBJ Presidential Library’s Civil Rights Summit, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, was always going to be, first, about the maintenance and promotion of Johnson’s legacy. The attendance of three former presidents and one sitting president, each of whom are thinking about their own reputations, is a complicating factor. Each came to sanctify Johnson’s legacy, and to have their own legacy sanctified in return—in fascinatingly different ways.
Then there are the many august thinkers, historians, activists and politicians who have come to speak and bear witness—their presence gives credit to Johnson’s many accomplishments, and elevates them in return. (Jesse Jackson, miffed that he wasn’t included, cut short his participation in a trade delegation to Japan to show his face around the summit’s media center and crash George W. Bush’s party)
If you like Johnson this seems like a worthy goal. But given the importance of the subject at hand, it’s also something of a missed opportunity. The summit had the eyes of the media and a great number of powerful and influential people. It could have been a place to have frank discussions about the civil rights issues that confront us now, in 2014, and will continue to do so between this summit and the centennial of the Civil Rights Act in 2064. For the most part, it was not. Peppered with Sam Cooke songs and slideshows of the highlights of the civil rights movement, the audience’s gaze was directed toward the past.
As a political spectacle, though, it was highly engaging. There was the rare opportunity to compare and contrast the competing interests and personal styles of four presidents—Jimmy Carter, warm and occasionally flinty, opted for a seated “conversation,” with an interviewer, introduced by Graham Nash, happy as always to say exactly what he thinks.
The pomp and circumstance of Bill Clinton’s address outshone even that of the keynote speaker, President Obama. Clinton and Vernon Jordan, who introduced him, worked hard to establish the Clinton dynasty’s success in a number of areas not particularly related to civil rights, including America’s low inflation rate during his helmsmanship. He spoke of how America had backslid since his presidency, and didn’t mention Obama much, in a potential preview of his messaging in advance of his wife’s 2016 run.
George W. Bush, not overly keen to venture into the spotlight these days, gave a short address to a smaller crowd, predominantly regarding the deterioration of his administration’s education reforms. It was a national shame, he said, that the closing of the racial achievement gap had stalled, which is both true and a foreshadowing of an ex-presidency speaking Bold Truths.
Obama, true to form, gave a slightly professorial recounting of Johnson’s life. His was a more inscrutable address than the rest, as his narrative of Johnson’s career was slightly out of step with the narrative held true by his family and many in the room. Piqued in the past by comparisons to Johnson’s legislative prowess—Johnson’s greatest biographer, Robert Caro, remembered marked coolness the last time he met the current president—Obama underlined similarities between his passage of the Affordable Care Act and Johnson’s stewardship of the Civil Rights Act.
As for the daytime panels: It’s always fascinating to hear great Americans like U.S. Rep. John Lewis and great historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin speak. A panel featuring San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (introduced as Julio Castro by former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes) and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was an interesting look at the political dynamics of the immigration debate, but didn’t touch much on the human rights imperative actually at work—the pretty abysmal treatment of the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country.
That set off a UT student named Deborah Alemu, who started heckling Castro during the panel. Alemu told reporters afterwards she’d only planned to interrupt the event if the participants started dancing around the issue—she decided they were. “When you’re sitting there and listening to someone who supposedly supports you, but their support only takes the form of words and not action, it’s extraordinarily heartbreaking,” she said. She was allowed to stay through the panel but ejected afterwards—the summit, heavy on Ken Burns-style black-and-white montages of civil disobedience, threatened those who engaged in it with prosecution.
Alemu was part of a larger protest organized by pro-immigrant groups around the summit. Four UT students chained themselves to the campus’ Martin Luther King, Jr. statue, and spent the night there. They called for Obama to halt mass deportations of migrants, which have risen to a record level during his presidency. One speaker called it “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.”
In the morning, with a crowd of several dozen, they marched from the statue to the summit, where they got a distant glimpse of President Obama’s motorcade entering the library’s driveway from a police barricade. They sang “We Shall Overcome,” and three of the marchers sat in the street and were arrested.
After Obama’s speech, the marchers dissipated. But there was trouble inside. The summit’s panel on contemporary women’s issues had to be canceled. Billie Jean King had had a death in the family, and Tina Brown, the high-powered but reputationally-troubled magazine editor, had fallen sick, leaving Elizabeth A. Smith, CEO of Bloomin’ Brands, which owns Outback Steakhouse among other casual dining restaurants, alone. “In the spirit of the summit,” said Mark Updegrove, the director of the library said, “we shall overcome.”
Johnson’s achievements were titanic, and his reputation is improving—even without the library’s efforts. The cultural memory of Vietnam as America’s defining foreign policy failure is being supplanted by more recent escapades, but the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act continue to pay enormous dividends and will as long as this country sticks around.
At the end of a recent piece on the president, the Austin American-Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove picked up on an LBJ quote I hadn’t heard before.
“I’m kind of ashamed of myself that I had six years and couldn’t do more,” Johnson said at a civil rights symposium at the LBJ Library in December 1972. “Let no one delude himself that his work is done. While the races may stand side by side, whites stand on history’s mountain, and blacks stand in history’s hollow. We must overcome unequal history before we overcome unequal opportunity.”
Johnson especially saw his legacy as the beginning of a conversation, and not the end. It’s worthy to celebrate him, but Texans—and Americans generally—don’t get many chances these days to confront contemporary civil rights issues head–on. That’s too bad.