President Obama Celebrates Civil Rights Law

The president says that "we are in a position to take the baton" that LBJ handed to us.
31:25 | 04/10/14

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Transcript for President Obama Celebrates Civil Rights Law
This is a special room. I'm Michelle Franzen in New York fifty years after president Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law. The Civil Rights Act of 1954. Is being celebrated today in Austin Texas at the Johnson library. Former President Bill Clinton spoke last night now its president Obama's turn. Let's go to Texas and outward Georgia congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis has just finished speaking and introducing the president let's listen. A. So -- thank. You thank. -- what we'll. Please those -- all week. But. -- week. What a singular honor it is for me to be here today. I want to thank. First and foremost. The Johnson family. For giving us this opportunity. And the graciousness with which. Michelle and I have been received. We came down a little bit late because we were upstairs. Looking at some of the exhibits and some of the private offices. That. Were used by net present Johnson and ms. Johnson -- Michelle was in particular interest -- door of a recording. In which. Lady bird is critiquing president Johnson's performance. And -- had come pump you need to listen to this. And she pressed the button. And not have -- it. Some things do not change. Even fifty years later. It's all. The members of congress. Warriors for justice. -- elected officials. And community leaders -- here today. I want to thank you. 04 days. In through his. Sudden presidents. And the night before he would address. A joint session. Of the congress in which he wants -- Lyndon Johnson sat around a table where this closest advisors preparing his remarks. To a shattered. In grieving nation. He wanted to call on senators and represented -- -- To pass the civil rights -- The most sweeping. Since reconstruction. Most of the stepped. Counseled him against it. It said it was hopeless. There would anger powerful. Southern Democrats and committee chair. -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- And one particularly bowl -- said. He did not believe a president should spend his time and power all -- lost causes. However worthy -- -- might be. To which it is set president Johnson replied. Well what the hell's presence -- -- What that held the presidency -- If not to fight for causes you believe it. Today as we commemorate. The fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights that. We honor up. The men and women in menopause. Some of them. -- here today. We celebrate giants like jungles. And Andrea. And -- -- We -- call the countless unheralded Americans black and white. Students and scholars. Preachers. And housekeepers. Whose names are -- not all monuments but in the hearts. Of their loved ones. And in the fabric of the country that they helped to change. But we also gather here. Deep in the heart of the state that shaped. To recall. One giant man is remarkable efforts. To make real the promise of -- found. We hold these truths to be so -- That all men. Are created it. 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. Frustrate sometimes. -- stymied. The office -- it. You're reminded daily that in this great democracy you are but a relay swimmer. In the currents of history. Bound by decisions made by those who came before. Reliant on the efforts of those who will follow. To fully vindicate your measure. But the presidency also affords a unique opportunity to ban those -- My shaping our walls. And by shaping our debates. By working within the confines of the world as it is but also by re imagining. The world -- -- should be. This was president Johnson's genius. Have a master of politics and legislative process. He -- like few others. The power of government to bring about change. LBJ was nothing if not a realistic he was well aware that the law alone. Isn't enough to change hearts and minds. A full century after Lincoln's time he said until justice is blind to call until education is unaware of race. Until opportunity is unconcerned with the color man -- emancipation will be a proclamation. But not a fact. He understood. Walls. Could accomplish everything. But he also knew that only the law. Could anchor change. And set hearts and minds on a different course. And a lot of Americans -- -- the -- most basic protections. At that time. Doctor -- -- of the time it may be true that the law can't make command loved me. But it can keep them from lynching me and I think that's pretty important. And passing laws was what LBJ -- knew how to do. Know what. Your politics. And no one loved legislated. More the president jobs. He was charming when he needed to -- -- one report. He could -- -- down what logic. An argument. He could horse trailer. And he could flat up. You come with me on this bill. He would reportedly tell Turkey Republican leader for my home state during the fight for the civil rights bill. And 200 years from now schoolchildren will now only two names Abraham Lincoln and Everett -- Any -- that senators were believed things like that. President Johnson -- power. He liked the feel love it. The wielding up. The -- hunger was harnessed. And regained. By deeper understanding of the human condition. By -- sympathy for the undergo. For the down -- for the outcast. And it was a sympathy rooted in his own experience. As a young boy growing up. In the Texas hill country. Johnson knew. What being -- felt like. Poverty was so common he would later say. -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- The family home did have electricity. -- -- -- Ever but it worked -- Including children. President Johnson had known. The metallic taste of hunger. The feel of a mother's calloused hands. Rubbed raw from washing and cleaning them. Hold my household together. His -- -- remembered. Sweltering days spent on her hands and knees in the cotton fields. Would Linton who let him whispering the -- Or there's got to be a better way to make a living moments. It's got to be a better white. It wasn't. Until years later when he was teaching -- so called Mexican school. In time -- out of taxes. But he came to understand how much worse the persistent pain of poverty could be. For other races. And Jim Crow south. Often times. These students which wrote to class -- And what -- visit their homes he would meet fathers. Who were paid slave wages by the farmers there workforce. Those children were taught he would later say. That the end of life is -- -- -- rural. The spinach fields. Or cotton patch. Deprivation. And discrimination. These were not abstractions. To Lyndon Baines Johnson. He knew the poverty and injustice are as inseparable as opportunity and justice are joint. So that was in him. From an early age. Now like any of -- he was not a perfect -- His experiences in rural Texas may have stretched his moral imagination. But he was ambitious. Very ambitious. A young man and a hurry to plot his own escape from poverty. And to chart his own political career. And in the Jim Crow south that -- not challenging convention. During his first twenty years in congress he opposed every civil rights bill -- came up for a vote. Once calling push for federal legislation the parson a -- He was chosen as a vice presidential nominee in part because of his affinity with an ability to deliver. That's southern white -- And at the beginning of the county administration he shirt with the president -- -- caution. Towards racial controversy. But -- has kept marching. For an all girls were killed in a church. What -- some of that. The winds of change -- And when the time came. When LBJ stood. In the Oval Office I picture him standing there. -- -- -- -- -- -- -- Looking out. Over the south long. In a quiet moment and asked himself. What the true purpose. His office was -- What was the end point of his ambitious. He would reach back it is all member. And -- remember his own experience would want. And he knew that he had a unique capacity. As the most powerful. White politician from the south. To not merely challenge. The convention. That had crushed the dreams so -- But -- ultimately dismantle for good. The structures. Of legal segregation. He's the only god. Who could do it. And he knew -- beer cost. Famously -- Democratic Party may have lost. The self. For a generation. That's what his presidency was people. That's where he meets. -- -- And -- with an iron will. Possessed -- those skills that he had -- so many years in congress. Pushed and supported by a movement of those willing to sacrifice everything. For their own liberation. President Johnson. Fought for an argument and horse trade. And -- And persuaded. Until ultimately he signed. The Civil Rights Act in the law. And he didn't stop there. Even though his advisors again told them to wait. Again told him let the dust settled. Let the country absorbed. This momentous. Decision. -- -- -- -- The meat in the coconut. This president Johnson were put. What the voting rights act. So we fought for and -- that is well. Immigration reform came shortly after. And then a fair housing act. And -- -- health care law that opponents described as socialized medicine that what curtail America's freedom. But ultimately freed millions of seniors from the -- that illness could rob -- of dignity and security of their golden years which we now know today as Medicare. What president Johnson understood. Was that equality required more than the absence of oppression. It required the presence. -- economic opportune. He wouldn't be as eloquent as Doctor King would be in describing that linkage. Doctor King moved -- Mobilizing. Sanitation workers in the poor people's movement but he understood that election because it looked it. A -- up. Decent wages. Health care. Those two were civil rights worth fighting -- An economy where hard work is rewarded and success -- shared. That was his goal. And you know as someone who would seem the new deal transformed the landscape of this. Texas child. -- seen the difference electricity it -- because of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The transformation. Concretely day in -- -- -- in the life of this old -- He understood that government had a role to play. And broadening prosperity to all those who would strive for. We want to open the gates to opportunities. Present Johnson -- We're also gonna give all our people. Black and white. The help they need to walk through those gates. -- some of the sounds familiar. It's because today we remain locked in the same great debate. About equality. An opportune. The role of government. In ensuring each. As was true fifty years ago. There are those who dismiss the great society and they failed experiment. And an encroachment on liberties. Larger the government has become the true source of all that ails us -- that poverty is due to the moral failings. Of those who suffer from. Are also those. Who argued John. But nothing's changed. That. Racism. -- -- in bed in RB and a but there's no use trying politics. The game -- -- it. But such. -- ignore history. Yes it's true that despite laws like the Civil Rights Act. In the voting rights act Medicare. Our society is still wracked with the vision and poverty. Yes race still colors are political debates. And there have been government programs that have fallen short. In a time when cynicism is too often passed off as wisdom. It's perhaps easy to conclude that there are limits to change. We are trapped -- our own history. Politics is a fool's error. And we'd be better off if we roll back big chunks of LBJ's legacy. Or at least if we don't. Put too much of our hope. Invest too much of our hope. In our government. I reject such thing. I just because Medicare. Not just because Medicare and Medicaid it lifted millions from -- I just because the poverty rate in this nation would be our -- without food stamps and head start. And all the great society programs that survived to this day. I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of LBJ's efforts. Because Michelle had lived up. The legacy. Of those efforts because my daughters have lived -- the legacy of those efforts because I and millions of my generation were in a position to take the baton. That he handed to -- -- it. And. Because of the civil rights moment. Because of the laws president Johnson -- -- doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody up. Not all at once but. But they swung open. Not just blacks and whites but also women and Latinos and Asians and native Americans. And gay Americans. Americans with a disability. -- swung open for you. And they swung open for me. That's why I'm standing here today. Because. Of those up because the -- Like this week and it. And that. Means we've got a debt to -- That means we can't afford to be -- Half a century later the laws LBJ -- Are now as fundamental to our conception of ourselves and our democracy. As the constitution. In the bill of rights. They are foundation. An essential piece of the American care. But we are here today because we know we cannot be complacent. For history travels not only forwards. History can travel backwards. History can travel sideways. And securing the gains this country has made. Requires the vigilance of its citizens. All rights. Are freedoms they are not given. They must be 10 they must be nurtured through struggle and discipline. And persistence and great. In one concern I have sometimes. During these moments. The celebration of the signing of the civil rights that. The march on Washington. From a distance sometimes these commemorations. Seem inevitable. They seem easy. All of the pain and difficulty and struggle and doubt. All that's broke away. And we look at ourselves -- we say all things are just two different now we couldn't possibly do what was done man. These giants what they accomplished. And -- they were men and women to. It wasn't -- event. It wasn't certain bad. Still. The story of America is a story of progress. However small. -- incomplete. However harshly challenged at each point on our -- However applaud. Our leaders. However many times we have to take a quarter of a -- perhaps -- The story of America's historic progress. And that's true because of men like president. Lyndon Baines Johnson. -- all our gifts and all -- -- All our restlessness. And all our big -- This -- Born into poverty. -- in a world full of racial hatred. Somehow found within himself. The ability. To connect his experience. With the brown child. In a small Texas to. The white child. -- -- -- The black child. In watts. As powerful. As he became. In that Oval Office. He understood better. He understood what it meant to be on the outside. And he believed that their plight was his -- to. That his freedom ultimately was wrapped up the -- In the making their lives better was what the hell the presidency wistful. -- those children were on his mind when he strolled to the podium that night in the house chamber. When he called. For the vote on the civil rights law. It never occurred to me he said in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help. The sons and daughters of those students that it -- so many years ago. And help people like them all over this country. But now. I do have that -- And -- lately am honestly. I mean to use. And I hope that you -- used equipment. That was LBJ's -- That's why we remember. And if there is one thing that he in this year's anniversary should teach us. If there's one lesson I hope that Malia and Sasha and young people. Everywhere learned from this today. -- that -- enough threat. And enough empathy. And enough perseverance and enough courage. People who love their country can change it. In his final year. President Johnson stood on this stage. Racked with pain. Battered by the controversies. Of Vietnam. Looking far older than his 64 years. And he delivered what would be his final public speech. We have proved. The great progress is possible -- We know how much still remains to be done. And if our efforts continued. In a -- will is strong. And of our hearts are right. And the -- her remains are constant companion. Then my fellow Americans I am confident. We shall overcome. We. Shall overcome. The citizens. Of the United States. By Doctor -- Like Abraham Lincoln. Like countless citizens who have driven this country inexorably forward. President Johnson knew that our us in the end is a story of optimism. A story of achievement and constant striving that is unique upon this earth. He knew because he had lived that sort. He believed that together we can build an America -- is more fair. More equal. The more free. Than one -- here. He believed we make our own destined. And in part because of -- We must believe it is what. Thank you god -- God bless the United States of America. President Obama speaking at that Lyndon Johnson library. In Austin, Texas marking the fifty years since the Civil Rights Act. -- -- Into won't keep up with the Civil Rights Act anniversary celebrations in real time by downloading the ABC news that story -- this story or exclusive update. On the go. For now I'm Michelle --

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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