“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.

The first occurred during Obama’s discussion of Johnson’s unlikely emergence as the greatest civil rights president of the 20th century. During his first twenty years or so in Congress, Johnson opposed civil rights, quite effectively. In the late 1950s, his public stance had softened somewhat, and he helped pass civil rights reforms in 1957 and 1960, although it was not clear whether his motives were anything more than political, or how hard he had worked to water those measures down. Only after he became president did Johnson bring his staggering political skills to bear on the issue. But having become president, he pursued civil rights tirelessly and consequentially. 

No one is sure how to explain this startling reversal. Some think the key factor was that times were changing, and Johnson changed too. Some think the key factor was that Johnson’s job title changed. Johnson himself offered the latter view: a few days after the assassination, when he called on Congress to honor Kennedy’s legacy by passing a civil rights bill, he mentioned that ever since his time as a schoolteacher in the poor south Texas town of Cotulla, he had wished he could do more to help improve equality in America, but that he never expected to have an opportunity to do so. Now, though, he did. “And I’ll let you in on a secret,” he told the House. “I mean to use it.”

That moment was quoted many times at the summit, by a number of speakers, including Obama. In contrast to most of the other speakers, though, the president made a point of mentioning the rival explanations, and what Johnson’s stance had been before his public conversion. “His experiences in rural Texas may have stretched his moral imagination,” Obama said, referring to Johnson’s teaching days, and the poverty of his own childhood. “But he was ambitious, very ambitious.” An ambitious southern Democrat, Obama continued, couldn’t afford to challenge convention, and Johnson played his part convincingly: “He was chosen as a vice presidential nominee in part because of his affinity with and ability to deliver that Southern white vote.”

In fact, Obama suggested, Johnson might have focused on other issues after he became president. “But marchers kept marching. Four little girls were killed in a church. Bloody Sunday happened. The winds of change blew.” The president said that he pictured his predecessor in the Oval Office, contemplating such events and deciding to take action.

In Obama’s version of the story, in other words, the times changed Johnson. That was slightly off-message for the summit, which was organized in part to highlight Johnson’s role in changing the times. Both ways of looking at it are plausible. The lessons, though, are different. The first version emphasizes the role of moral reasoning in the fight against injustice: as the civil rights movement fought for justice, they compelled Johnson’s attention, and he decided to change. In the second version, the power of the presidency is the key weapon: the question of whether Johnson’s motives were less than pure is interesting, but his motives were less relevant, practically speaking, than his known talents for charming, bullying, wheedling and making deals. Obama has occasionally been criticized for lacking Johnson’s talent for legislative politics. At the summit, the president acknowledged that Johnson had been a master at that sort of thing. But his version of the Johnson conversion story suggests that he doesn’t plan to emulate those tactics, perhaps because he puts more weight on the power of the pulpit. 

Another striking aspect of the speech was Obama’s implication that the Affordable Care Act should be understood as a civil rights reform. Johnson didn’t merely pass the Civil Rights Act and call it a day, Obama said; he had gone on to pass the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Fair Housing Act, and “then a health care law that opponents described as socialized medicine that would curtail America’s freedom, but ultimately freed millions of seniors from the fear that illness could rob them of dignity and security in their golden years, which we now know today as Medicare.”

Is access to health insurance a civil right now? That’s an open debate in American politics. It’s not a question that was settled by the passage, in 1965, of the Medicare bill, though. It’s arguably not a question that was even addressed by Medicare. The program was conceived as social insurance; in theory, at least, recipients are entitled to Medicare in their older years because they paid into the program when they were young and employed. Johnson described it as the right thing to do, because it would help people. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were, by contrast, described as a necessary measures, not nice ones. The Affordable Care Act, similarly, wasn’t passed as a civil rights reform. Obama has connected the issues before, as have other Democrats, and they’re not necessarily wrong to do so, but that was not the argument considered by Congress in 2010, or the Supreme Court in 2012. 

Obama seemed to anticipate that line of objection, and argued that for Johnson, fighting poverty was important for the same reason that the Civil Rights Act was: poverty, like racial segregation, deprives people of the opportunity to achieve equal outcomes. That is true, but it blurs a meaningful distinction: only one of those things clearly violates the Constitution. Poverty, by contrast, remains a serious problem in Johnson’s home state of Texas, and around the country, partly because it underlies or exacerbates many others. Still, there’s a reason no one’s ever tried to ban it.  

On the other hand, given that Obama’s speech was at the Civil Rights Summit, it was impossible to forget the fact that just fifty years ago, there were plenty of people in this country who would have flatly disputed the suggestion that segregation is unconstitutional, and many of them were mainstream political and civic leaders. The Constitution only became clear on this over time, as people changed, with an assist from the government. As Obama put it, the Civil Rights Act didn’t change public opinion the day it was passed, nor was that its immediate goal; its immediate goal was to provide basic protections that many people needed at the time. Over time, however, it had additional results, as Johnson intended: “He understood laws couldn’t accomplish everything, but he also knew that only the law could anchor change, and set hearts and minds on a different course.” Fifty years from now, if there is a near-consensus that health care is a civil right, it will be, in part, because the Affordable Care Act establishes a legal expectation that every American will have health coverage, even if the law’s immediate goal is to establish access to a specific form of health coverage and even if the arguments in its favor had more to do with actuarial science than with the Constitution. If so, we may remember Obama as a serious tactician in a different way: not one who changed as many laws as LBJ, but a specialist in the long game.

( AP Image / Carolyn Kaster )