Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

'We've got a debt to pay': Voices from the battlefield

By Donna Brazile
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The LBJ Presidential Library is hosting a Civil Rights Summit this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the legislation. President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The LBJ Presidential Library is hosting a Civil Rights Summit this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the legislation.
HIDE CAPTION
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
The civil rights movement in photos
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act
  • Four presidents honored civil rights heroes and Lyndon Johnson, who signed act
  • President Obama called them "warriors for justice"

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- At the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, four presidents remembered the battles and honored those who fought to form "a more perfect union" on the path to economic, educational and voting equality.

But, for one of those heroes, it was also a time to pause and acknowledge the progress. And for one president, it was a time to honor another.

The four presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- led the observances, appropriately, at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. It was President Johnson who in 1964 secured the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and in 1965, the Voting Rights Act -- the latter eviscerated last year by the Roberts Court.

President Obama thanked "the warriors for justice, the elected officials and community leaders who are here today." Those who ended segregation and ushered in the most significant change in America since the Civil War were indeed, "warriors for justice."

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

One of the warriors present was Rep. John Lewis who was in his 20s when the battles for Civil Rights were raging across the South, and indeed, all America.

Lewis was attacked dozens of times. The bus he was riding was firebombed in Anniston, Alabama. He suffered a fractured skull from a policeman's club on the Selma Bridge and was beaten unconscious in a Montgomery bus station.

It was men and women warriors like Lewis who first moved Americans, and then moved the federal government, to guarantee the basic human rights they demanded. The rights were as simple as ordering a sandwich and drink at a lunch counter, and as profound as being able to vote.

Introducing the President, Lewis said, "President Barack Obama was born into a dangerous and difficult time in American history, a time when people were arrested and taken to jail just for sitting beside each other on the bus."

"When people say nothing has changed, I say come and walk in my shoes, and I will show you change."

President Obama keyed his theme to honor President Johnson. "Because of the civil rights movement, because of the laws that Lyndon Johnson passed, new doors swung open," he said. "I have lived out the promise of LBJ's efforts. ... Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts. ... My daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts."

Doors swung open, Obama said, "not all at once, but they swung open. Not just (for) blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos; and Asians and Native Americans."

"In a time when cynicism is too often passed off as wisdom, it's perhaps easy to conclude that there are limits to change; that we are trapped by our own history; and politics is a fool's errand," he said, adding, "I reject such cynicism."

Obama: Cynicism often passes for wisdom
Obama: The presidency humbles you
Inside Politics: Presidents making news

We "cannot be complacent," he said. "Our rights, our freedoms -- they are not given. They must be won." Obama added, "We remain locked in this same great debate about equality and opportunity."

Earlier in the week, former President Jimmy Carter struck a similar theme: "We still have gross disparity between black and white people on employment (and) the quality of education," said Carter. "But we feel like, you know, Lyndon Johnson did it -- we don't have to do anything anymore. I think too many people are at ease with the still existing disparity."

Former President George W. Bush, who spoke at the conclusion of the Summit said, "I fear that the soft bigotry of low expectations is returning, and for the sake of America's children, that is something we cannot allow."

Former President Bill Clinton homed in on the erosion of the Voting Rights Act, and partisan divisions. "We all know what this is about: This is a way of restricting the franchise after 50 years of expanding it," Clinton said. "Is this what Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life for? Is this what Lyndon Johnson employed his legendary skills for?" he asked.

"I am concerned that on this 50th anniversary, these divisions and the lack of a spirit of coming together put us back in the dustbin of old history," Clinton said.

Obama echoed Clinton, saying, "One concern I have sometimes during these moments (is that) from a distance, sometimes ... they seem easy. All the pain and difficulty and struggle and doubt -- all that is rubbed away."

Bush reminded the audience about the importance of education in ensuring equality for all. "It is not a coincidence that many of the defining struggles of the civil rights era -- from Little Rock Central to the University of Mississippi -- took place in educational settings. Those who engage in oppression and exploitation always deny real learning. Those who fight oppression always insist on equal education. Through civil rights laws, we assure justice in the present. Through education, we secure justice for the next generation."

There is still more work to do. More work by my generation, which includes the President. And more work by those coming up now.

Obama exhorted young people especially not to succumb to despair or cynicism because the struggle seems too hard. "We've got a debt to pay," he said. President Johnson "believed that together we can build an America that is more fair, more equal, and more free than the one we inherited. He believed we make our own destiny. And in part because of him, we must believe it as well."

If we still believe, we shall overcome one day.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT