Lee: The other side of LBJ's legacy

BY ASHLEY LEE | APRIL 18, 2014 5:00 AM

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Last week, Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter gave speeches celebrating Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts in the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas.

The legislation, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, also declared racial segregation in public places illegal. It laid the groundwork for the following year’s Voting Rights Act, and later, the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

While African Americans were free from bondage in 1865, an entire century passed before black men and women were seen as equals in the eyes of the law. 1964’s Civil Rights Act was designed to eradicate the white backlash against emancipation that loomed over the descendants of American slaves for decades. But it also benefited other racial and ethnic groups.

The turbulent ’60s were violent and destructive but necessary and progressive. Without the decade’s civil-rights legislation and Johnson’s efforts in the aftermath of the first Kennedy assassination, African Americans, other communities of color, and religious minorities would live significantly different lives than they do now.

On paper, people of color have been equal to whites for 50 years now. But in many ways, what has been devised on paper has yet to be translated into a mode of reality.

The act has yet to be regularly reinforced by not only all influential and powerful members of society — politicians, landlords, bank tellers, CEOs, administrators, faculty, employers, and the like — but everyday Americans. Personal biases play a significant role in either hindering or improving the treatment of underrepresented populations. These personal biases determine whether marginalized groups will receive the same respect and affirmations as whites.

While former Presidents Harry S. Truman supported legislation that desegregated the military, and Dwight D. Eisenhower with the desegregation of public schools, Johnson is allotted most of the credit when it comes to the advancement of racial equality in the 20th century.

When remembering Johnson’s overall legacy, though, Obama admitted, “During [Johnson’s] first 20 years in Congress, he opposed every civil-rights bill that came up for a vote, once calling the push for federal legislation a farce and a shame.”

I don’t want to be blinded by the idea that Johnson was a man who was painstakingly for racial justice when he still held negative presumptions about African Americans.

Neither do I wish to believe that because of the legislation in the ’60s, Americans don’t need to focus on race anymore because we’ve supposedly gotten where we should, because we haven’t.

Some believe that once something is made legal, that is the end-all, be-all of said issue. I’m afraid to say that is just the beginning.

Just because a politician signs a legislation ensuring equality for a disadvantaged group does not necessarily mean that either the politician, or a dominant group, respects the population the law is meant to protect.

Not everyone is willing to abide by the law. Internal biases, leading to discriminatory behavior, deter us from equality.

It’s important we not only recognize this and our own biases when reflecting on America’s progress, but be familiar with Johnson’s entire legacy and not just his victories.

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