AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) — As he joins three other living presidents Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, President Barack Obama honors a measure that helped pave his way to the White House.
Obama, along with Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, have converged at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Texas to commemorate the historic act, as well as the decades-long movement that spurred its signing.
The measure made it illegal to discriminate based on race, outlawing for the first time segregation at lunch counters, buses, and other public spots.
Johnson, the nation’s 36th president, became an unlikely hero to the civil rights movement by using his stores of political capital to pressure lawmakers to pass the legislation — an effort initiated by President John F. Kennedy and continued by Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination.
“He had lived and breathed and been through a thousand battles with these guys. There was almost nobody in the House or the Senate that he hadn’t done a favor for,” said Andrew Young, a civil rights leader and former Georgia congressman. “He was the master of the Senate. He knew where all the bodies were buried.”
Johnson’s descendants hope to turn his legacy toward that of a civil rights pioneer, rather than the President who presided over the Vietnam War.
The fight was personal for Johnson, who’d grown up in the South amid racial inequality, according to his speechwriter.
“He had seen firsthand the poor blacks and poor Mexicans who were not getting a fair break in society,” said Richard Goodwin.
Obama himself has said as the first African-American president, he’s indebted to civil rights leaders, though during his time in office he has not spoken frequently about his place in the movement’s history.
During an August celebration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, Obama cast his own election to the Oval Office as a consequence of persistence and courage of civil rights leaders.
“Because they kept marching, America changed,” Obama said. “Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually, the White House changed.”
In the last year, Obama has begun speaking more often about race, though the topic is by no means a frequent part of his speeches and remarks. He addressed the issue in deeply personal terms following a jury’s acquittal of the man accused of killing black teenager Trayvon Martin, and earlier this year the President spoke about the challenges that young men of color face in today’s society.
“By almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century, in this country, are boys and young men of color,” he said in announcing his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which aims to help minority men and boys succeed.
Many suspect Obama will use his post-presidential years to focus on the issue.
Citing statistics showing minority boys are less likely to read proficiently, and more likely to be expelled from school, Obama called on the country to shake its complacency toward inequality.
“We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is,” the President said. “But these statistics should break our hearts, and they should compel us to act.”
While race isn’t a common theme for Obama, combating inequality has become the central tenant of his second term agenda, through his push to close the gap between rich and poor and his efforts in closing the wage gap between men and women.
Facing a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, his legislative efforts on those issues have thus far come up short — leading to some negative comparisons between Obama and Johnson, a so-called “master of the Senate.”
Those comparisons ignore Johnson’s later tenure, Obama claimed last year in an interview with The New Yorker.
“When he lost that historic majority, and the glow of that landslide victory faded, he had the same problems with Congress that most presidents at one point or another have,” Obama told the magazine’s editor, David Remnick. “I say that not to suggest that I’m a master wheeler-dealer but, rather, to suggest that there are some structural institutional realities to our political system that don’t have much to do with schmoozing.”
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