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Sunday, December 4, 2016

By Patrick Beach, Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Day two of a three-day summit at the LBJ Presidential Library to commemorate the anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act brought more spirited discussions and a gathering of political and intellectual firepower Wednesday, capped by a keynote address from former President Bill Clinton, as polarizing a figure in his era as was Johnson three decades before.

Panels focused on sports and race, the civil rights movement, and the complicated relationship between Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. The summit wraps up Thursday with a keynote by President Barack Obama and a pre-dinner speech by former President George W. Bush.

On Wednesday, Johnson’s former special assistant, Joseph Califano Jr., bluntly unpacked the fundamental problem that has frustrated those hoping for an America that progresses more rapidly toward its promise of equality for all: prejudice.

The question — put to Califano, historians Taylor Branch and Doris Kearns-Goodwin and former United Nations ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young — was whether Obama has a harder time advancing his agenda than Johnson did.

“Obama, I think a lot of the problems he has is because he’s black,” Califano said to applause.

The discussion highlighted Johnson’s efforts on civil rights and voting rights. Organizers are hoping the conference will refocus those successes when historians assess Johnson’s legacy, which for decades has been weighed down by the Vietnam War. Johnson agonized over that legacy after he left office, and he likely would have been pleased with the praise — qualified as ever — he’s receiving at the Civil Rights Summit.

Moderator Todd Purdum, author of “An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” about the passage of the landmark legislation that paved the way for Johnson’s Great Society reforms, got things going by asking about the relationship between Johnson and King, “colossal and complicated” figures. Young, a friend and supporter of King’s, said the relationship was “very warm and personal,” even after King had become more vocal in his opposition to the war.