Fri April 11, 2014 10:41 am By Erica Grieder

“Yes, race still colors our debates,” said President Barack Obama during his keynote speech at the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit yesterday. It is also the case, he said, that the country is still wracked by political division and poverty, and that some government programs have fallen short of their goals; nonetheless, 50 years after Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, “we have proved that great progress is possible.” And the president ended his speech by promising, like LBJ before him, to use the power of his office to pursue further progress. 

The Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public accommodations and included a provision against unequal application of voter registration rules; the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson signed the next year, reinforced voting rights by establishing federal oversight of state election rules and outlawing literacy tests, among other things. Both sought to guarantee equal access to political participation for African-Americans (and other racial minorities). In his remarks introducing the president, John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement who now represents Georgia in the United States House of Representatives, observed that the laws had thereby enabled the elections of Southern Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as well as Obama, the country’s first African-American president. Clinton made that point too, during his keynote address on Wednesday. The election of a black president, however, was a milestone that many doubted was possible right up until the day America voted him in.  

As president, Obama has not gone out of his way to lead a national discussion about the legacy of racial injustice in America, or about the racism that still exists, although his administration has occasionally taken up issues that disproportionately affect African-Americans and Hispanics, as in the Department of Justice’s efforts against state-level efforts to restrict voting rights (including Texas’s Voter ID law). Yesterday’s speech was in line with that approach. The comment quoted above was about as close as Obama has ever come, at least in public, to addressing an argument that many of his supporters have made—that the political opposition to his domestic agenda is so ferocious that it must be driven by racism, at least in part.

Overall, Obama came across as less contentious than Clinton, for example, who gave a blistering take on recent Republican efforts to shake off the restrictions of the Voting Rights Act while simultaneously pursuing state-level restrictions on voting itself: “We all know what that’s about.” Obama’s polite words about Johnson’s legacy, however, conveyed a couple of pointed arguments.

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Tue April 8, 2014 5:16 pm By Erica Grieder

The first day of the LBJ Presidential Library's Civil Rights Summit offered a thought-provoking contrast between the way advocates are approaching two of the more controversial topics of recent years: gay marriage and immigration reform. 

The first panel posed the question of whether gay marriage is a civil right. It was no surprise that both panelists, lawyers David Boies (center) and Theodore Olson (right), agreed that it is. The two are from different points on the political spectrum--they argued against one another in 2000's Bush v Gore--but they worked together to make the case against Prop 8, the 2008 ballot proposition in California that would have amended the state constitution to bar recognition of same-sex marriages, and they are working together now to overturn a similar measure in Virginia. During the course of the discussion, though, they took a more assertive stance than one might have expected. They offered some comments about the benefits of allowing gay couples to marry, and about the disadvantages that may be experienced by children whose parents are legally unable to marry.

Their overarching message, though, was that marriage is a fundamental right, one that the government has no authority to deprive people of. From a legal perspective, "the other side doesn't have an argument," Boies said. More than thirty federal judges have considered cases related to gay marriage since last June, he said and all of them have ruled in favor of access to marriage. For that matter, he continued, the Supreme Court has struck down several state laws that tried to deny someone the right to marriage on the basis of bad behavior (like child support scofflaws) or impracticality (imprisoned felons). In both cases, Boies noted, the people who supported the state laws had a rational perspective on the situation; the laws were nonetheless unconstitutional. 

Immigration was the issue at hand in the second panel discussion of the day, and my colleague Brian Sweany opened the discussion with a logical question: should immigration be considered a civil rights issue? 

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Tue April 8, 2014 1:12 pm By Erica Grieder

President Barack Obama has declared today "Equal Pay Day", as part of the administration's ongoing efforts to bring attention to the gender wage gap. To that end, he will sign an executive order stopping federal contractors from penalizing workers who discuss their pay rates, and is calling on the Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, a measure that would expand the legal protections of the Equal Pay Act. 

The announcements mean that Texas's running discussion about equal pay will continue. To that end, just a quick note here, in case any readers missed it: on Friday, we published a thoughtful piece on the statewide debate by Bethany Albertson, an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. Our thanks to her and to those of you who have weighed in with substantive comments, on this as on other issues. 

( AP Image / Lauren Victoria Burke )

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Mon April 7, 2014 3:05 pm By Erica Grieder

"The purpose of this law is simple," said President Lyndon B. Johnson as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others. It does not give special treatment to any citizen. It does say the only limit to a man's hope for happiness, and for the future of his children, shall be his own ability. It does say that those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels and restaurants and movie theaters and other places that provide service to the public."

A simple purpose, simply stated, and the President had also noted that the bill at hand had passed both houses of Congress with a two-thirds majority, and with support from both Republicans and Democrats. Implicit in his comments that day, however, was a recognition of the conflicts that had preceded the law and necessitated it.

"We must not approach the observance and enforcement of this law in a vengeful spirit," Johnson said. "Its purpose is not to punish. Its purpose is not to divide, but to end divisions, divisions which have lasted all too long. Its purpose is national, not regional. Its purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity. We will achieve these goals because most Americans are law-abiding citizens who want to do what is right." 

Fifty years later, the Civil Rights Act is widely regarded as a landmark piece of legislation, not because it ended injustice in this country, but because it was an unmistakable statement of purpose. The LBJ Presidential Library is holding a civil rights summit in Austin this week to reflect on its passage and to consider how the civil rights efforts of the 1960s resonate with contemporary debates on issues such as immigration and gay marriage. Speakers at the summit include four American presidents--Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. 

The LBJ Library will livestream the summit, and we'll have commentary here on BurkaBlog throughout the week. Two notes of my disclosure, before the summit begins: my colleague Brian Sweany will moderate a panel discussion on immigration tomorrow with Julián Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, and Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi. Also, I'm on the board of the LBJ Future Forum, a nonpartisan public policy discussion group. 

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Mon April 7, 2014 11:33 am By Paul Burka

UPDATE: This post has been edited to correct errors related to the candidates' position on pre-K and public education. I regret the error.

Why does pre-K matter? The answer is that professional educators wouldn’t be so gung-ho about pre-kindergarten instruction unless they saw the huge value – both in terms of knowledge such as vocabulary development and non-cognitive skills such as character development – in getting kids ready for kindergarten, which is the ultimate objective.

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