As Obama Celebrates Civil Rights Legacy, Capitol Hill Erupts With Racial Tension

PHOTO: President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at the LBJ Presidential Library, April 10, 2014, in Austin, Texas.PlayCarolyn Kaster/AP Photo
WATCH Obama Commemorates Civil Rights Act

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.

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“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.

VIDEO: Eric HOlder criticizes Congress during speech to the National Action NetworkPlay
Eric Holder Rips Congress as 'Ugly and Divisive'

“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.

VIDEO: Boehner Responds to Holder Comments: Theres No Issue of Race HerePlay
Boehner Responds to Holder Comments: 'There's No Issue of Race Here'

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.

VIDEO: Pelosi: Race a Factor in GOP Approach to Immigration Reform Play
Pelosi: Race a Factor in GOP Approach to Immigration Reform

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.”

But House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did put the issue on the table at a news conference on today, suggesting that race was one reason why Republicans have refused to allow a vote on immigration reform.

"I think race has something to do with the fact that they're not bringing up an immigration bill," Pelosi said. "I've heard them say to the Irish, 'If it were just you, this would be easy.'"

Pelosi said that Republicans “across the board” had disdain for those who disagreed with them.

“I think that generally speaking they are disrespectful of the president’s administration,” she added.

Another prominent Democrat -- one who is poised to be the party’s standard bearer in 2016 -- was asked earlier this week whether the Civil Rights Act would pass today's Congress. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demurred.

“I think it would be a heavy lift,” she said during a speech to the World Affairs Council of Oregon on Tuesday. “I believe it would pass the Senate, but we would have a fight on our hands in the House.”

Indeed, the most recent signs of tension come at a moment when President Obama faces a new set of civil-rights issues and a new set of arguments over what constitutes injustice.

While debates over racism have amplified during his term, differences over gay rights, gender discrimination in the workplace, and immigration have come to the fore as the major civil-rights issues of Obama’s presidency.

“The laws LBJ passed are now as fundamental to our conception of ourselves and our democracy as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” Obama said in his speech. “They are a foundation, an essential piece of American heritage, but we are here today because we cannot be complacent.”

The debate about race has been just off-screen for much of Obama’s presidency, but this week’s anniversary seemed to stir up talk from all quarters.

Baseball great Hank Aaron, in an interview with USA Today, even went so far as to compare the president’s political opposition to the Ku Klux Klan, saying “back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts."

But Aaron, who was marking a milestone of his own this week -- the 40th anniversary of his record-breaking 715th home run, had more to add.

“Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he's treated,” he said. "We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country.”

ABC News' John Parkinson, Rick Klein and Erin Dooley contributed to this report.