AUSTIN, Texas — Lyndon Johnson has long been remembered as a tragic figure, as the president who helped smash Jim Crow but also mired America in a bloody quagmire in Vietnam.
This week, with the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act approaching, the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, will seek to shift the focus on his legacy from Vietnam to his role in deploying the power of the federal government to fight discrimination.
The LBJ Presidential Library will have some high profile help. Four of the five living ex-presidents will appear at the library for the Civil Rights Summit and pay tribute to Johnson: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and the last Texan to occupy the White House, George W. Bush. Former professional athletes, Jim Brown and David Robinson, and Grammy winning artists, like Mavis Staples and Patty Griffin, will appear alongside Julian Bond and John Lewis, surviving veterans of the movement, and politicos, such as former Mississippi Republican Governor Haley Barbour and San Antonio Democratic Mayor Julian Castro, to celebrate the landmark law that helped usher in the end of American apartheid.
All the bipartisan pageantry obscures a growing divide between the parties when it comes to civil rights. In 1964, Republicans and Democrats from outside the South worked together to circumvent legislators from the former Confederacy and pass the Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination in employment and businesses of public accommodation on the basis of race, sex and religion. Today, Republicans and Democrats are sharply divided over the appropriate scope of laws barring discrimination.
One of President Obama’s first acts was reversing a Supreme Court decision that limited women’s ability to sue for sex discrimination on the job. During the economic crisis of 2008, conservatives erroneously sought to place the blame for the collapsing financial system on laws barring discrimination in housing. Since taking office, Republicans and conservative activists alike have assailed the Obama Justice Department’s civil rights division for being overly aggressive in its enforcement of civil rights laws and accusing the administration of being racist against whites.
It was George W. Bush who signed the last re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006. Yet Bush also appointed the chief justice he appointed who wrote the opinion gutting a key section of the law last year relying on a dubious legal argument. Republican Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner has struggled to gain Republican support for his patch to the Voting Rights Act, while Republican-controlled states have celebrated its demise by passing laws restricting the right to vote.
In March, Republicans in the Senate managed to peel off enough Democrats to block the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the civil rights division, based in part on his history of civil rights advocacy. Formerly the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile’s entire career as a civil rights advocate was reduced to his role in representing Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black radical who was convicted of murdering a white police officer Daniel Faulkner in Philadelphia in the 1980s.
The divide is both ideological and the result of the vastly different perspectives of each party’s core constituencies. The majority of whites vote Republican and see racial discrimination against blacks as mostly a thing of the past, blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic and see racism as an ongoing problem.
Even when it comes to gay and lesbian rights, the divide remains largely partisan. Though many young Republicans have embraced marriage equality, the party overall remains staunchly opposed. Across the country, Republican state legislators have rushed to enshrine in state law religious exemptions allowing businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples.
There’s a tendency to talk about civil rights in past tense – battles fought in a war long since ended. On the contrary, in the era of the first black president, the conflict rages on, with Johnson’s proudest legacy, the fight to end discrimination, very much in doubt.