President Barack Obama embraced Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights legacy Thursday in a speech that credited the former president with helping to open the doors to equality for countless Americans, including those who are LGBT.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
Obama’s speech at the Civil Rights Summit at Johnson’s presidential library in Austin marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act was not the first time the nation’s first African-American president has tied the Civil Rights movement to the LGBT-rights movement.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” Obama said during his second inaugural address, repeating a phrase he used during a Barnard College commencement speech in May 2012.
When Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last August, he said that those who came to Washington in 1963 pushed the nation forward. “Because they marched, America became more free and more fair — not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability,” Obama said. “America changed for you and for me.”
Obama’s LGBT-rights legacy is certainly not lost on the president. And arguably nor is the work left to be done.
“I think it’s fair to say that there has been enormous progress made under this administration when it comes to LGBT rights — historic progress. And that’s something the President wants to continue and wants to see continue,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.
The first sitting American president to openly endorse same-sex marriage, he has all but ensured that a Democrat will never again be able to run for the White House without supporting marriage equality. Under his direction, Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, and the Justice Department ceased defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in federal court. When the Supreme Court heard arguments in same-sex marriage cases for the first time in March 2013, Obama’s solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, urged the Supreme Court justices to strike down DOMA as well as California’s same-sex marriage ban. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” bears his signature. And early on Obama endorsed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
Where Obama has come up short — in refusing to sign an executive order protecting LGBT federal contractors from workplace discrimination — he has faced heightened criticism, in large part because of how out of character it is from his broader civil rights record. That proposed executive order, which Obama once supported as a candidate for president in 2008, is based on Executive Order 11246, which has been expanded by a number of presidents to prohibit federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
In light of the setting for Obama’s speech today, it is worth noting that executive order was first signed by President Johnson.
“[W]e are here today because we know we cannot be complacent,” Obama said Thursday. “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.”
Ultimately, Obama said, the nation moves forward. “However slow, however incomplete, however harshly challenged at each point on our journey, however flawed our leaders, however many times we have to take a quarter of a loaf or half a loaf — the story of America is a story of progress.”
[Photo: Barack Obama in the Oval Office replica at the LBJ library. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.]