Ronan Farrow Daily   |  April 10, 2014

Obama reflects on civil rights history

Ronan Farrow and panel discuss the speech given by President Obama on Thursday at the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> i want to go to michael beschloss , presidential historian and also ben jealous , the former head of the naacp. tell me, gentlemen, what do you think the significance of this speech is in terms of president obama 's legacy? did he say anything new substanti substantively? will this be a rallying call in terms of his popularity right now?

>> what he could have done that he didn't do was really put out a clear call for the passage of section four of voting rights act , the restoring of section four. there's a bill moving through congress right now, and it will go a long way, not far enough but great first step. it is not a lost on most people in our country that even as we go through these commemorations, as the president spoke to sort of speeding up the spirit of these times, he could have spoken more specifically to say it is deeply disturbing we find ourselves having to once again make the case for voting rights , make the case for protecting our fellow voters. what he did speak to i thought was powerful, was that president johnson knew in his bones the truth about the south, which is that across the south, people will sort of every rank in society often struggle more than in the rest of the country. we are a poor region. and what president johnson understood is that if we switch the script and went from fighting against each other to fighting for each other, we could all prosper more. you see that and throughout georgia here and maryland, in those places where we have embraced the diversity of the south, we have prospered dispro disproportion naltly for those --

>> he did make the argument once again, you need more than the absence of oppression, you need the presence of economic opportunity, which put the civil rights fight in today's context. i want to go to kristen welker our nbc correspondent there on the ground. how do you think it was received there in the room?

>> reporter: oh, i think the reception was very strong. i think president obama gave a robust defense of what president johnson had accomplish the. i want to pick up on the point that ben jealous just made. i've been talking to members of congress, including elijah cummings who hoped president obama would go into detail in defending voting rights act . and the president is going to give a more robust, broader defense of that tomorrow in new york when he addresses the national action network . is something that you can expect to hear looking forward. i think today, president obama laid the groundwork for some of his remarks that he's going to give tomorrow. also defended democratic principles , the role of government in bringing about some of these changes through the law. and also, in terms of, i think, some of the changes that certainly he has talked about in his own agenda, immigration reform , and those sorts of things. so i think that today president obama really wanted to focus, it seems like, on the legacy of johnson, and in a way also defend the democratic principles that he continues to talk about clearly regularly.

>> it's interesting you mention immigration, kristen. it does seem to be an overaveraging into today that he used the legacy of lbj to broaden out the conversation. what do you think the key policy agenda that the president introduced in addition to just the race facet of civil rights , where he mentioned immigration prominently? is he trying to broaden out this conversation? he talked about more con sit wensys too.

>> he said lbj was a great man because he tried to deal with the most fundamental problems, like poverty, education, whatever the cost. there was an interesting reference when he was talking about the advisers that told him not to do civil rights at the beginning of this presidency because it might be too costly. obviously what he was thinking of himself is his advisers in his own presidency who said don't do health care , it will be too difficult for you to do. but the other thing is that, remember, he said the office -- the office humbles you.

>> he described himself as just a relay swimmer in the currents of history.

>> very interesting, and very different from his own talk about presidential leadership from the beginning. but there is one thread that runs throughout, i think, president obama 's thinking that was there today, which was essentially presidents can't do it all. john kennedy sent a civil rights bill to congress. lbj did the same thing with the voting rights bill. but those things would have been impossible without fair-minded people, both african-american and otherwise, of the grass roots demanding that these things be done, pressuring presidents to go where they might not otherwise have gone.

>> ben, he didn't go into policies specifics, though he did allude to voting rights specifically. yesterday on this program, they asked to allow pictures to combat voter i.d. laws. social security cards. do you think that that's an idea that could ever gain support? it was a pretty fringe proposal. and he did specifically mention young in his remarks today.

>> sure. that's the type of thinking that we need. we have seen people across the south trying to fight these laws, do things like put photos on your library card . and that's good thinking. and that's an issue that needs to play itself out. one thing i do want to be clear about, ronan, this is never just about black and white . i'm talking about the black civil rights community. you can go back to frederick douglass talking about nationality, and going on a tirade against the chinese -- excuse me, the bill in congress that was pushing chinese out of the country. you can go all the way through, right after the passage of the civil rights act , as the president was talking about, just now, that the same groups came together to end the europe-only preference for migration to this country. so we've always been clear that what we're fighting against is this long lingering sort of pattern in this country of excluding people of color . and, you know, that really went from black folks, the irish, chicanos, the chinese who built the railroads across this country, the native peoples of this country, and all we fought for, all of us, on this theory, again, that if the rights of all of us are secure, we'll all prosper.

>> and gay americans, to big cheers in the room today, to women.

>> absolutely.

>> your op-ed today said if they will push more registration, obviously, a big part of the legacy of the organization that you led. how will that help?

>> the only way to tear down the walls of voter suppression that are being built across our country right now is with a tide al wave of voter registration . you can look at a state like georgia where the tea party governor won by 258,000 votes or so. the president lost by about 310,000 votes. there are 830,000 unregistered people of color there right now. 600,000 black, 230,000 mostly latino, and asian. you can go up to the next state, the tea party governor won by 60,000 votes. she may win by 100,000 this year. there are 300,000 unregistered voters there. if they were signed up, a candidate like her could never win again. that's what we need to be focused on. at the end of the day , small peanuts for people in this country who really care about insuring that our country moves in an inclusive, fair, and just direction for all of us.

>> and i think the president's remarks were a cry of the heart , and a rallying call on that. i found them very moving. thank you for our live coverage of this event. that wraps up our part of our special coverage of president obama 's speech, civil rights summit at the lbj civil rights library in texas. joy reid is up next with "the reid report."