Historic anniversaries are a time to celebrate victories and progress that has been made to a common goal. This week, America will celebrate the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, effectively destroying Jim Crow and creating a new era of equality for American citizens regardless of race. However, this anniversary, while definitely historic and worthy of celebration, brings up many questions about civil rights and how the United States has continued that march of progress in the present time. Perhaps mostly importantly on this historic anniversary, the Lyndon B Johnson signing of the civil rights bill leaves questions of what constitutes civil rights now and how that affects American politics today.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a momentous change to American law when it was first passed, but it has continued to be an important issue today. Most recently, a portion of the civil rights act was struck down by the Supreme Court on the basis of equal sovereignty of the states, which is less a part of the Constitution as the court claimed and is actually a historical tradition. It is important to note, that no matter what the basis for the change, the effect of it was to suspend the responsibility of the states to submit their voting law changes for approval by the Justice Department. In effect, the states can now make their own rules for voting without thought to federal law or the civil rights act meant to protect voting rights.
There are many portions of the civil rights act that remain in place and do their job, but that small portion was an important preventative measure to give everyone the right to vote in the country they live in. Voting rights were an important issue in Lyndon B Johnson’s time when African Americans were subject to prohibitive hurdles to voting, such as extra fees, long distances to the polls, and others all meant to make it harder for them to vote. Without protections, the states are free to put in place new hurdles to voting.
This situation keeps the civil rights act relevant to today’s politics as politicians work both to create problems and to prevent them from both sides of the aisle. This is not a new fight, but there are new issues for civil rights, including what qualifies as a civil right. For the LGBT community, that is an important topic. On this anniversary, the question is, “what would Lyndon B Johnson do about LGBT rights?” The former president’s daughters, Luci Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb, talked about that very issue during an interview with Katie Couric. They emphasized their father’s interest in social justice and that being homosexual is not a choice, intimating that he would have supported the gay rights movement. Despite that, they acknowledged that it was not an issue he had to deal with in his time and, therefore, it was hard to say how he would have felt about it for certain. However, as his daughters, their willingness to discuss the issue of gay rights and field questions about it points to the importance of Lyndon B Johnson’s civil rights anniversary as a time to reflect.
The organizers of the anniversary celebrations and observances have to an extent acknowledged that fact as well. At the kickoff panel for the anniversary symposium, two civil rights lawyers who launched the successful case against California’s same-sex marriage ban talked about the current issue of gay rights as civil rights. They claimed that the choice of highlighting gay rights issues at the start of the symposium was no coincidence and that it was truly the civil rights issue of the time. Part of their support for that claim was demographics which, as they pointed out, has a majority of acceptance for LGBT equality.
Despite the case for joining the gay rights movement to that of 1960s civil rights, some claim that the two are not similar at all. Conservative activist Jonathan Saenz’s response was that there is a difference between the “radical redefinition” of marriage and issues of race. His defense was also a demographic one in which he pointed to the racial diversity of the people who voted against marriage equality. Nevertheless, Saenz represents only one side the current conservative thinking on this issue. Former senator Alan Simpson will star in a commercial funded by the organization Freedom to Marry in which he expresses support for same-sex marriage and the core Republican value of government not interfering in people’s lives. That principle, he implies in the short 30-second commercial, is part of the basis for his support for gay marriage.
These arguments over the position of gay rights as a civil right is an important part of Lyndon B Johnson’s legacy and it is considered appropriate by many that the discussion be highlighted on this historic anniversary. Johnson’s history ultimately has far reaching effects on American politics that go beyond issues of race and tough the fundamental definition of what rights humans actually have. Because of him, the discussion on civil rights can now include issues of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and relationship status that otherwise would not have had the opportunity to figure on a large scale. For America and for humanity itself, he was the man who took the biggest step in creating the dialogue that exists today.
His legacy as a president, though, has been marred by the war in Vietnam which was a tragedy by all accounts. Until recently, that was the most prominent aspect of his presidency. Recently, there has been a re-evaluation of that legacy largely in part because of the civil rights act which he signed into law. The famous Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston is currently starring in a play about Lyndon Johnson and he says that learning more about the president has changed his opinion. Instead of focusing on the tragedy and horror of Vietnam, he sees Johnson as more of a hero, primarily for his involvement in the Civil Rights Act. Johnson went against the advice of many who claimed that signing the bill was tantamount to political suicide in order to do what he knew was right. That, according to Cranston and perhaps many others rediscovering LBJ, makes him a heroic figure.
Historian Robert Caro’s biographical series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which currently numbers four large volumes with a fifth on the way, has also played its part in the public rediscovery of Johnson’s heroic aspects. There are countless sources on the history of LBJ’s years as president, including thousands of tapes and recordings which lend primary source authority to Caro’s account. Through his writing, the historian weaves a dramatic figure of a tragic hero who was doomed to fail as a president because of Vietnam. The war essentially killed the positive aspect of his legacy, but much of what the former president was able to accomplish politically sets the stage for modern politics as we know it, including as has been seen the gay rights movement.
Even the United States’ current president owes much to Lyndon B Johnson. The Civil Rights Act in 1964 was a step towards racial equality that made the election of the first African American president possible to a large extent. Without it, America might never have had President Barack Obama. The comparisons between the presidents are important to note as well. Both had to deal with wars that were doomed in many ways to a certain kind of failure. Both presidents have also made it plain that they want to negotiate across party lines in order to make progress happen. While the comparison is not considered completely fair by Obama supporters (especially since Johnson is so negatively criticized), the good points are there and can be accepted by many.
In any case, President Obama will also pay his own homage to the anniversary. He will join former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter at the LBJ Presidential Library to pay tribute to Johnson. This is an important anniversary not just for Johnson and those who admire him, but also the civil rights movement and those who were a part of it. It is also a time to reflect and discuss the state of civil rights in the present time, which will necessary include the debate on gay rights and the LGBT equality movement. There can be no doubt for observers that this 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights act into law is a huge part of American history, nor that it still leaves questions about civil rights moving into the future.
Opinion By Lydia Webb