Education as a civil right in the shadow of LBJ’s legacy
April 11, 2014
“Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”
We should keep these wise words from President Lyndon B. Johnson in mind as we reflect on his legacy on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This week’s Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin is all about recognizing the lessons of the past as we move forward into the future.
Time and time again, history has shown that when it comes to civil rights in the United States, real change requires the commitment of legislators who are not afraid to stand up for what’s right – even to members of their own party. Lyndon Johnson demonstrated this in his pursuit of civil rights legislation as a congressman, and then as President.
Yesterday, the summit hosted a discussion titled “Education: The Ultimate Civil Right,” billed as “A conversation on the state of education today, its obstacles and opportunities.” As education becomes more of a polarizing issue nationally, the discussion came at a perfect time to explore the parallels between Johnson and Democrats of today.
As the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Johnson knew that Southern anti-civil rights Democrats would never vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 in its original form, and he was forced to allow a watered-down version of it to reach President Eisenhower’s desk. The law designed to ensure that every American could exercise the right to vote regardless of race was almost unrecognizable when it was passed – but for Johnson, the fight wasn’t over.
When Johnson assumed the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he took up the mantle of civil rights once again. Inspired by the passionate commitment of African-American activists who mobilized not just their own communities, but also the nation at large, his administration made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a priority. Johnson urged its passage in his first address to a joint session of Congress as President. Though it was opposed by the Southern Bloc, made up mostly of fellow Democrats, the bill was ultimately passed, becoming a landmark piece of legislation that paved the way for further dismantling of race-based discrimination across the country.
Johnson’s willingness to do what was right, despite the potential for political blowback, is particularly relevant for Texas Democrats today as we attempt to turn the Lone Star State blue. Education is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time, and our nation’s children are suffering because of legislators’ unwillingness to fight for crucial reforms that aim to give every student equal opportunity to succeed. We need legislators who are ready and willing to reject the status quo to unite Texas Democrats in support of truly great public education.
It’s the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The United States has made great strides with regard to race, though we still have a lot more work to do. Failing schools in Texas and across the country need the support of Democrats who aren’t afraid to embrace change, regardless of the political consequences.
What would LBJ say? When it comes to our kids, his message couldn’t be any clearer: tomorrow is ours, to win or lose.
With more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, Jennifer Koppel has worked with elected officials, philanthropists, homeless mothers, boards of directors and students to achieve successful outcomes for organizations in growth phases. Read more about Jennifer here.
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