“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.