On the same day that President Obama, the nation’s first black president, celebrated the legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at the LBJ Library in Texas, Capitol Hill was boiling over with racial tensions and accusations.
“If some of this sounds familiar,” Obama said today, recounting President Lyndon Johnson’s push for civil-rights legislation, “it’s because today we remain locked in the same debate about equality and opportunity and the role of government in ensuring each.”
And while the president commemorated Johnson’s achievement, he also alluded to the difficulties his predecessor faced in moving the landmark legislation through Congress decades ago, drawing a link to the present.
“Those of us who’ve had the singular privilege to hold the office of the presidency know well that progress in this country can be hard, and it can be slow,” Obama said. “The office humbles you.”
But even as Obama addressed the crowd of several hundred at the three-day civil-rights summit, halfway across the country, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were engaged in a day of feisty, racially charged exchanges.
The dominoes began falling on Wednesday when a fed-up Attorney General Eric Holder accused Congressional critics of launching “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive” attacks on him and the Obama administration.
During a speech to the National Action Network, a civil rights group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, Holder applauded the organization’s effort to advance racial equality -- but then went off script.
“Look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee,” Holder told the crowd in New York. “What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”
On Tuesday, while testifying before a House panel, Holder engaged in a testy back-and-forth with Republicans, in particular, Rep. Louis Gohmert, who accused him of violating federal law and questioned whether he should even be allowed to testify before lawmakers -- comments that elicited an equally forceful response from the attorney general.
Gohmert maintains the tension is about the administration’s lack of cooperation on oversight, not skin color.
Holder "doesn’t even know how bad it gets in Washington if you’re a conservative, if you’re George W. Bush, if you’re John Ashcroft, if you are Alberto Gonzales,” Gohmert, R-Texas, said during a speech on the House floor today. “Because it got pretty brutal here, a lot worse than anything our current attorney general has seen.”
Asked today about Holder’s recent run-ins with Republicans, House Speaker John Boehner insisted, “There’s no issue of race here” and pointed at a lack of cooperation from the executive branch as the House investigates several controversies that have plagued the administration.
“The frustration is that the American people have not been told the truth about what happened at the IRS,” said Boehner, R-Ohio, referring to the controversy over the agency scrutinizing the tax status of conservative groups.
“The American people have not been told the truth about what happened in Fast and Furious,” he continued, referring to the ATF scandal over guns ending up in the hands of gangsters in Mexico. “The administration has not told the American people the truth about Benghazi and we’ve been going through all of these hearings, having to hold people in contempt because they’ve made it impossible to get to the documents. They’ve not been forthcoming. They owe the American people the truth.”