04/14/2014 02:31 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2014

LBJ Wasn't Alone

The 1964 Civil Rights Act is 50 years old. The majority of commemorations have focused on the legislative prowess of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. When Johnson became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the civil rights establishment was justifiably concerned.

Would a southerner, who had never been an overt supporter of civil rights, continue the momentum that was already in place? An obvious concern, but Johnson proved to be that he was not only a supporter, but put his presidency on the line to pass legislation that was doubtful that JFK could have achieved given the political climate on Capitol Hill.

But it would be the next year where the depth of Johnson's commitment would be on full display for the nation to see.

On the heels of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Johnson delivered a televised address to a joint session of Congress, where he called for a voting rights act. It was one of those rare symbiotic moments that gives birth to presidential greatness, when the office holder is one with the crisis moment at hand.

Johnson stated:

"Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement, which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."

In 1963, Kennedy spoke to the nation calling civil rights a "moral issue," but in 1965, Johnson made civil rights a profoundly American issue.

It is understandable many Johnson supporters today would use the golden anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to rehabilitate his legacy that was severely tarnished by Vietnam. Since few are the sum total of a single event, it would seem that history has been myopically unfair in its treatment of the Johnson legacy.

But the case for Johnson's greatness on civil rights seems to ignore a glaring ally. Fortunately, for posterity Johnson did not forget his indispensable partner.

In the 1965 address Johnson also remarked:

"The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this Nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform. He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy."

The 1960s were an unprecedented decade. In my forthcoming book, I discuss how from 1960-1968 there was a movement every year, forged in local communities to move America's democratic needle forward. Before any legislation was signed, Negroes and others courageously pledged their lives and their sacred honor in the pursuit of a more perfect union.

The moral force that led to Johnson signing landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 was excavated at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, interstate travel into the deep South, frustration in Albany Georgia, children taking on police dogs and high-pressured hoses in Birmingham Alabama, as well as a march on Washington.

Obviously passage of the Civil Rights Act required presidential leadership, but it also necessitated gallantry and a belief in American democracy by those on the ground who were being systematically denied the protections guaranteed in the Constitution.

It was years of moral courage combining with political courage that changed the nation.

Acknowledging the collective effort that brought civil rights legislation to fruition doesn't diminish the Johnson legacy; if anything, it's enhanced.