Castro says despite progress, more is needed in advancing civil rights

San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who grabbed national headlines for his keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, talked with us about his views on civil rights and President Lyndon Johnson’s legacy. Castro is in Austin today as part of the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential library.

American-Statesman: Did you and your family benefit from civil rights laws passed 50 years ago?

Julián Castro: Families like mine benefited immensely in terms of educational opportunities, the basic quality of life, being able to eat in the same restaurants, stay in the same hotels, attend the same universities. The difference between the America my grandmother grew up in and the America my daughter is growing up in is just enormous.

What has the civil rights movement meant to your generation and Latinos in particular?

It’s meant opportunity more than anything else, the opportunity to get a better education than in generations past, the opportunity to compete for a good job and to live a life less burdened by prejudice.

What are the most pressing concerns in civil rights today in your view?

Of course issues surrounding the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, the freedom to marry as well as nondiscrimination for the LGBT community. More generally it’s to ensure that the challenges that many communities still face because of the legacy of prejudice — that those challenges are addressed. I’m thinking of the barrios and ghettos that still exist in our big cities, our poor education system in many communities, those are the vestiges of what used to be and what we have to continue to work on to improve.

My concern is that this youngest generation sometimes seems not to fully appreciate the struggle that went into creating the opportunity that they have today. They take it for granted. In one way that’s a good thing. I want my daughter to grow up unburdened by the prejudice that my grandmother and my mother faced. At the same time I hope she appreciates how many folks had to struggle and fight for the opportunities she has today.

Why do you think there is that kind of disconnect?

Well, I think different things. More than ever, we live in a society if it didn’t happen a minute ago it’s in the rearview mirror. But secondly, it seems as though the country came to a point where we wanted to say we’ve made all this progress now let’s just move forward. And that’s fine, in the sense that we should move forward; however, we can’t forget what happened to get us here.

I believe part of it is a byproduct of wanting to look forward and not look back because of the pain of the past and the conflict of the past. But there’s a value in understanding the past in our classrooms and in what we expose our young folks to, and I don’t believe these lessons are being taught well enough.

Who are some of your civil rights heroes?

César Chávez was one of them, his fight for justice for farm workers and more broadly for the dignity for people who work hard for a living. Bobby Kennedy, the strong stance he took, especially in the mid- to late 1960s, in support of civil rights, before he passed away. And of course, Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson as a president did more for civil rights than any other president – at least in the 20th century – with the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and everything that followed in the 1960s as part of the Great Society

I am pleased that this generation will have the opportunity as part of this summit to fully understand the breadth of LBJ’s accomplishments on civil rights and how fundamentally that helped the United States for good.

It doesn’t seem like history has given LBJ the credit he deserves on advancing civil rights. Do you agree?

I do agree. In the cacophony of the time there was reason for that with the Vietnam War and the backlash against that. But his lasting achievements on civil rights fundamentally transformed the quality of life for Americans and particularly for minorities.

Have we arrived at the “Promised Land” Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of?

I believe any reasonable person would acknowledge that we’ve made tremendous progress in the last couple of generations. However, we do still have work to do. There are still too many gaps among people — this issue of marriage equality and nondiscrimination of the LGBT community are examples of that, the overrepresentation of people of color in our prisons and the list of folks who don’t graduate from school. There still is a tremendous amount of work that can be done and ought to be done.

What is the next step for Mayor Castro?

I have one more re-election left in 2015 for my last two-year term. So I’m going to run for re-election. I will be out in the middle of 2017. And then I will see what’s happens from there. I’ll take a look at what’s happening in the state of Texas, figure out the 2018 cycle. It’s hard to tell what’s going to be happening that far out, so I will take a look around and see what’s possible.

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