Beneficiary-in-chief salutes rights law

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AUSTIN, Texas -- For three days, the veterans of a long-ago movement reunited and drew together their spiritual heirs to explore the legacy of the Civil Rights Act a half-century after it transformed America. And then the legacy walked onstage.

President Barack Obama presented himself Thursday as the living, walking, talking and governing embodiment of the landmark 1964 law that banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin.

In a speech that stirred an audience of civil rights champions at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Mr. Obama acknowledged that racism has hardly been erased, and that government programs have not always succeeded. But he added, "I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of LBJ's efforts, because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts, because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts."

Thanks to the law and the movement that spawned it and the progress made after it, Mr. Obama said, "new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody," regardless of race, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. "They swung open for you, and they swung open for me," he said. "And that's why I'm standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy."

The president's speech marking the 50th anniversary of the law Johnson signed in July 1964 was one more moment for Mr. Obama to address his own role in history. Although Mr. Obama often seemed reluctant to be drawn into discussions of race relations in his first term, insistent on being the president of everyone, he has been more open in talking about it since winning re-election.

Still, Mr. Obama used most of Thursday's address to extol Johnson in what could be the most generous speech by any sitting president about the Texan since his funeral, one that all but ignored the Vietnam War.

Mr. Obama offered little of his own personal journey on race, which might not have connected to some in the room given that the president, the son of an absent father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, was a child growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia during the civil rights movement.

Nor did Mr. Obama use the speech to advance his policy priorities. He did not mention overhauling immigration, perhaps his biggest legislative goal, and did not say anything about same-sex marriage, which has been the most expansive social change during his presidency. He did not mention his fight against efforts to discourage voting, which the night before he called un-American. Nor did he cite equal pay for women,

"He did a kind of inspiration, and that's important," the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the longtime civil rights activist, said in an interview. "But beyond inspiration, we need the legislation, the budget and the policies to protect Johnson's legacy."

Mr. Obama was one of four presidents to address the conference. Jimmy Carter spoke Tuesday, and Bill Clinton on Wednesday. George W. Bush spoke Thursday evening.

Mr. Bush used his evening speech to call the achievement gap between white and black children "a national scandal" and to urge both parties to address it as the central civil rights issue of the modern era. Mr. Bush, who as president signed the No Child Left Behind education law, lamented that "gains have stalled" and noted that a typical 17-year-old African-American student reads at the same level as a 13-year-old white student.

Addressing critics of No Child Left Behind, he said he did not object to adjustments. "But the problem comes when people start to give up on the goal," he said. "Some have ideological objections to any federal role in education. Some are too comfortable with status quo. The alliance between ideology and complacency seems to be getting stronger. I fear that the soft bigotry of low expectations is returning."

Mark K. Updegrove, the library director, showed the Obamas copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment ending slavery and signed by Abraham Lincoln, as well as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts signed by Johnson.


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