Civil society: Four presidents mark an equal-rights milestone

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Fifty years ago, America took a major stride toward becoming a nation that takes its creeds on equality seriously. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, it was arguably the most important piece of legislation enacted in a century.

This week, Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, will mark the law’s first half-century with George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter at the LBJ Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit.

Mr. Obama’s presidency would not have been possible without passage of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Discrimination was, unfortunately, a large part of the fabric of American life, law and tradition.

What is often forgotten in commemorating civil rights milestones is that powerful interests lined up to oppose Mr. Johnson’s push for equality every step of the way. But thanks to LBJ’s skill as a negotiator and his willingness to use the power of his office to persuade reluctant Southern Democrats to do the right thing, a deal was hammered out and America began to take its first fitful steps in a turbulent decade toward becoming an equal opportunity society.

Still, 50 years later, the nation has yet to fulfill the promise of equal rights for all. Discrimination still hounds same-sex couples, immigrants and others. It would be wrong to reflect on how far we have come without realizing how far we have yet to go.


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