On Aug. 4, 1964, the day Barack Obama turned 3, the remains of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss. The grisly discovery came about six weeks after the three civil rights workers, all in their early 20s, were set upon by a lynch mob.
The disappearance of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner spurred a national outcry that helped push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to passage and into law on July 2nd of that year. The legislation, coupled with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson two days after Barack’s fourth birthday – not only changed the youngster's destiny, but altered the course of the country.
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That history, shared and personal, no doubt will be on the mind and lips of President Obama as he speaks at LBJ Presidential Library in Austin on Thursday to mark the golden anniversary
year of the Civil Rights Act, a law intended to end the ugly institutionalized discrimination that long tarnished our nation. The President’s keynote address at the “We Shall Overcome” summit stands as an opportunity for a defining speech about where we were and how far we’ve come – as well as how far we have to go.
It seems so simple – a law outlawing discrimination, nearly a century after the Civil War.
That’s the word Johnson used
the day he signed the Civil Rights Act: “The purpose of the law is simple. It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others. It does not give special treatment to any citizen…. It does say that there are those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public.”
That might have been the most eloquent and important presidential moment from Johnson, never a champion public orator and not a great public champion of civil rights for much of his political career. But he acted fiercely when the tides of history met simple right and wrong.
Johnson, even armed with the skills of persuasion that made him, as biographer Robert Caro put it, the master of the Senate, still needed to stand on the shoulders of his slain predecessor, John Kennedy, to pass the act as President. When warned he would be using valuable political capital gained after Kennedy's death to fight a losing battle, Johnson replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?,” according to “The Passage of Power,” Caro’s fourth and latest volume of his Johnson series.
That’s a sentiment well understood, if not always acted upon, by Obama and every chief executive before him. This week’s summit will feature speeches by three of the four living former presidents – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, all sons of the south, men ages 67 to 89 whose lives spanned much of the 20th century U.S. civil rights movement.
Obama will be speaking Thursday, in a sense, for Lincoln, Johnson and all the presidents who acted when wrong bumped up against right. He’ll be speaking for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, for Martin Luther King Jr. and for all the martyrs who consecrated the civil rights movement with their blood. He’ll be speaking for the everyday people who suffered from discrimination at its worst, and those who benefited from the great law passed during that Freedom Summer.
He’ll be speaking for himself, and, most of all, for a country that needs the occasional anniversary as a reminder of the value of looking back as it looks ahead.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.