The Civil Rights Summit, held on the UT campus last week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of 1964’s Civil Rights Act, certainly made history. Three former presidents, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, all joined President Barack Obama in Austin to commemorate the occasion, each one delivering a keynote address through the week — an unprecedented occurrence.
But, though the summit was historic, students must think critically about the presidents’ words and the actions behind them because the issues at stake deserve more than just empty political rhetoric.
The first president to speak, Jimmy Carter, addressed the prevalence of sexual abuse on college campuses. “In this country, we are not above — I hate to say condemnation — but we are not above reproach. The number one place for sexual abuse is the United States universities,” the former president said. Unlike the other keynote speakers, Carter moved past pure rhetoric to suggest a solution to the issue: The Title IX clause that allows federal funds to be withheld from universities if administrators fail to address sexual assault cases should be invoked to help address the problem.
Clinton, too, spoke on a controversial topic, using his keynote address to talk about the aftermath of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that struck down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The court’s ruling allowed several states to change election laws without federal approval, and, as a result, many southern states passed laws requiring voters to show photo ID to cast a ballot. Clinton chided state governments for using the court’s ruling to restrict suffrage by passing such laws. “We all know what this is about.” Clinton said. “This is a way of restricting a franchise after 50 years of expanding it. Is this was Martin Luther King gave his life for?”
Considering Texas is one of the handful of states that require voters to present photo identification, Clinton’s words were bold.
But not all the speakers at the summit used the bully pulpit to address sensitive issues with frankness and candour. Rather, both Bush and Obama stuck to speaking about past accomplishments and legislation, barely touching on the challenges that lie ahead.
Bush talked mostly about education — an important topic, but one that constitutes much less of a hot button issue. He reminded Texans of the No Child Left Behind Act, a piece of legislation he announced in 2001 that increased reliance on standardized measurements for school accountability, especially regarding reading proficiency for younger children. Bush did do some justice to addressing inequality in public education, pointing out that “education in America is no longer legally separate, but it is still not effectively equal.”
Obama, too, addressed disappointingly little of the modern issues concerning civil rights. Although perhaps the most anticipated speaker at the three-day summit, Obama did little to further any specific civil rights issues when he took the stage. Instead, in his characteristic manner, he spoke with eloquence, poise, and measured enthusiasm about things we already knew were true. The most we could take from Obama’s speech was his eloquent praise of LBJ, which, while meaningful, should not have been an end in itself. The lack of substance in Obama’s speech raises the question: Was the summit even productive beyond its celebratory flourishes?
Professor Edwin Dorn, a former Dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, thinks the answer to that question lies in what happens next. He asks whether, in light of the summit, the University “will make a bigger investment in teaching and research about civil rights, immigration policy and voting rights … [because] right now, we are weak in all three areas. For example, only one UT faculty member is an expert on voting rights.”
Gregory Vincent, the vice president for Diversity and Community Engagement, offered a slightly different view. He thought that listening to the “perspectives of national leaders in public policy, politics, business and activism yielded fruitful dialogues about social justice” and that the summit’s “real success was inspiring us to carry the conversation of civil rights forward and consider how those rights are being negotiated by different groups today.”
But while we should appreciate the more celebratory aspects of the summit, calling the conference a success does a disservice to the spirit of LBJ, a president who passed not one but many pieces of landmark civil rights legislation on voting rights, housing equality and Medicare, to name a few. But, instead of focusing on meaningful change, as Johnson’s landmark legislation did, this summit focused on rhetoric. When it comes to discussing civil rights, impassioned rhetoric can fall short; working to change the status quo is better. Change doesn’t come quickly, but there is certainly room for progress at UT. Even UT President William Powers Jr. admitted that UT has historically found itself on the “wrong side” of the civil rights argument.
In the final speech of his presidency, Johnson told a roaring crowd, “we have proved that progress is possible.” Johnson earned the right to say those words, and, when we as a school, or even as a nation, can come to terms with the civil rights issues of our generation — the difficulty of immigration and nationalization, the prevalence of sexual assault and the lack of equal treatment in the LBGTQ community, to name just a few — only then can we see events such as the Civil Rights Summit as successful. While that’s a high standard with which to measure success, it only reflects the nature of the task ahead.