Presidents congregate to honor Civil Rights Act

50th anniversary provides chance to discuss progress left to be made

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AUSTIN, Texas -- President Barack Obama, whose election fulfilled at least part of the promise of the Civil Rights Act signed into law 50 years ago by Lyndon B. Johnson, will mark the law's anniversary in Austin, Texas, this week along with three former presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The LBJ Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit will explore the struggle so far and the work to be done, touching on not only race but also issues including gay marriage, women's rights, immigration and -- in a last-minute addition fueled by concern from activists -- disability rights.

"It's a milestone celebration on a very important topic -- the effort to achieve equality -- and that's why it matters," said University of Texas at Austin political scientist Bruce Buchanan. "That's why those presidents are here. Lyndon Johnson, of course, is the central figure in making the laws comport with our values, and these presidents are here to express their respect for that."

Mr. Obama is scheduled to speak Thursday, and Mr. Bush later that day. Mr. Clinton will speak today.

Mr. Carter warned Tuesday at the conference that half a century after the passage of the act, complacency about civil rights has set in. "We feel like Lyndon Johnson did it. We don't have to do any more," he said.

LBJ Presidential Library director Mark K. Updegrove said nothing in Johnson's presidency and its sweeping domestic agenda affected the nation more profoundly than the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. "His chief legacy, the headline of his presidency, should be about civil rights," Mr. Updegrove said, suggesting that the "dark cloud of Vietnam" that hung over Johnson's presidency had begun to dissipate with the passing years.

Mr. Obama, whose path to becoming the nation's first black president was made possible by civil rights strides, gave an important speech about race in the 2008 presidential campaign, after controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's incendiary comments, and also spoke personally about race in the context of the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012.

Mr. Updegrove said he hoped that Mr. Obama "might use this as a platform to sound the central message that he wants to deliver as president on the subject of race."

Gov. Rick Perry, who is frequently at odds with Obama administration policies, was invited to the summit, but is amidst a trip to the Republic of Palau, an island country in the Western Pacific, as part of an expedition searching for missing-in-action World War II servicemen. Mr. Perry's communications director, Felix Browne, said the governor was already committed to the Palau trip when he got the summit invitation March 13. "The governor is proud that Texas will host this 50th anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights Act, one of the great milestones in the history of our nation," Mr. Browne said.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor, will attend the Clinton and Obama speeches, said campaign spokesman Bo Delp. He said she was invited by the LBJ Foundation. The campaign of the Republican nominee for governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott, said he wasn't invited.

Access to the summit speeches and panels is tightly controlled. Audience members were either invited or grabbed a limited number of tickets made available online. Summit programs are being live-streamed on the CivilRightsSummit.org website.

Tight security makes sense for an event drawing the president as well as three former presidents, said Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm. "In a nutshell, that is called a Secret Service nightmare," said Mr. Burton, a special agent with the U.S. State Department from 1985 to 1999.


The Washington Post contributed.

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