Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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

By Donna Brazile
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
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
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT