AUSTIN (USATODAY.com) -- President Obama -- as well as three of his predecessors -- are paying tribute here this week to the man and the movement that in many ways made Obama president.
That man -- President Lyndon Johnson -- and the movement that forged the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are topics of a three-day 50th anniversary summit at the LBJ library that opened Tuesday.
Obama and presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter are all scheduled to discuss the series of civil rights laws that continue to change American life, politics, and culture.
Those laws did many "wonderful" things, Carter said on the summit's opening day Tuesday, but the nation is still "falling short" on parts of the civil rights agenda, notably racial disparities in employment and education.
Clinton speaks Wednesday; Obama and Bush address the summit Thursday.
Obama, who delivers the summit's keynote address, has previously discussed the personal impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its equally high-profile companion, the Voting Rights Act signed by Johnson in 1965.
In an August ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Obama said that people demonstrated to open "doors of opportunity and education" for him and millions of others.
"Because they marched," Obama said, "city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed -- and, yes, eventually, the White House changed."
Passed over the objections of filibustering Southern senators, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation at public accommodations that included hotels, restaurants, schools and public transportation. It basically ended what civil rights activist Julian Bond, attending the summit here, called "this petty apartheid that America had."
The next year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 broke down barriers that Southern states and others had put on voting by African Americans.
Those two laws became cornerstones of what Johnson called his "Great Society," federal legislation designed to expand economic opportunity. (Those laws also expanded government, reviving a conservative political movement led in part by Ronald Reagan, elected governor of California in 1966.)
Johnson biographer Randall Woods said the nation probably would have had a black president eventually, "but certainly if it weren't for the Great Society, we wouldn't have had one as soon."
The civil rights movement of the 20th century inspired a variety of other freedom movements, some of which are subjects of panels at the summit at the LBJ library: women and the glass ceiling, gay rights and gay marriage, Hispanics and immigration, sports and race, education, and "music and social consciousness."
Hovering over the summit is the spirit of Lyndon Johnson, whose reputation has suffered over the years because of the Vietnam War that expanded on his watch. But Johnson is enjoying a historical comeback amid the anniversary celebrations of the civil rights laws.
Yet, as the authors of two new books on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 point out, Johnson had help from thousands of lawmakers, demonstrators, protesters and everyday Americans who demanded change.
"While Johnson played a central role, he did not play the central role," wrote Clay Risen, author of The Bill of The Century: The Epic Battle For The Civil Rights Act.
That battle involved thousands of people, ranging from Martin Luther King Jr., to college students who staged sit-ins at lunch counters. They all played different roles in pivotal events that included Brown vs. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott, and marches in Birmingham and elsewhere.
Todd Purdum, author of An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for The Civil Rights Act of 1964, described that bill and the Voting Rights Act as "the most important laws of the twentieth century and a high-water mark of shared civic purpose, national unity, and hope that the nation might yet live up to its founding creed."
Purdum also noted that, in 1963, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy – whose presidential brother John F. Kennedy actually submitted the civil rights bill to Congress that same year – told a meeting of intellectuals than there could be a "Negro president" in 40 years.
"He was wrong, of course," Purdum wrote. "But only by five years."