President Obama's speech at the LBJ Library in honor of the Civil Rights Act was both introspective and profound, particularly in light of the challenges we're facing today with conservatives working overtime to reverse it.
His remarks addressing the current political atmosphere and efforts to roll back civil rights were the most thought-provoking part for me:
Now, if some of this sounds familiar, it’s because today we remain locked in this same great debate about equality and opportunity, and the role of government in ensuring each. As was true 50 years ago, there are those who dismiss the Great Society as a failed experiment and an encroachment on liberty; who argue that government has become the true source of all that ails us, and that poverty is due to the moral failings of those who suffer from it. There are also those who argue, John, that nothing has changed; that racism is so embedded in our DNA that there is no use trying politics -- the game is rigged.
But such theories ignore history. Yes, it’s true that, despite laws like the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, our society is still racked with division and poverty. Yes, race still colors our political debates, and there have been government programs that have fallen short. 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, and we’d be better off if we roll back big chunks of LBJ’s legacy, or at least if we don’t put too much of our hope, invest too much of our hope in our government.
I reject such thinking. (Applause.) Not just because Medicare and Medicaid have lifted millions from suffering; not just because the poverty rate in this nation would be far worse without food stamps and Head Start and all the Great Society programs that survive to this day. I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts. Because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts. Because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts. Because I and millions of my generation were in a position to take the baton that he handed to us. (Applause.)
Because of the Civil Rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody -- not all at once, but they swung open. Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos; and Asians and Native Americans; and gay Americans and Americans with a disability. They swung open for you, and they swung open for me. And that’s why I’m standing here today -- because of those efforts, because of that legacy. (Applause.)
And that means we’ve got a debt to pay. That means we can’t afford to be cynical. Half a century later, the laws LBJ passed are now as fundamental to our conception of ourselves and our democracy as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are foundational; an essential piece of the American character.
But we are here today because we know we cannot be complacent. For history travels not only forwards; history can travel backwards, history can travel sideways. And securing the gains this country has made requires the vigilance of its citizens. Our rights, our freedoms -- they are not given. They must be won. They must be nurtured through struggle and discipline, and persistence and faith.
Full transcript here.
It was a strong reminder to me that even when we win, we have to stay alert because those who want to strip us of everything will keep trying, and only engagement will keep them at bay.