President Obama speaks during the Civil Rights Summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
President Obama speaks at the Civil Rights Summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

In his speech Thursday commemorating the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Obama talked about the enduring power of one of  President Johnson’s signature accomplishments.

Because . . . of the civil rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody, not all at once, but they swung open. Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos and Asians and Native Americans and gay Americans and Americans with a disability.

This isn’t the first time Obama has linked the push for civil rights by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans to the movement that made the 1964 law a reality. At his second inaugural, the president put the Selma marches for African American equality and the Stonewall riots that ushered in the modern LGBT rights movement under the same historic umbrella.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

And just to be clear about what the thinking is in the Obama administration on all this, in a speech in Sweden in February,  Attorney General Eric Holder called on the next generation to pick up the fight for LGBT equality.

Just as our forebears came together to overcome tremendous adversity — and to forge the more just and more equal societies in which we now live — so, too, must the current generation rise to the causes that have become the struggles of our day; the defining civil rights challenges of our time.  I believe one of these struggles is the fight for equality for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender — or LGBT — citizens.

Meanwhile, federal judges across the country have ruled that state bans on marriage equality violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. Just today, a federal judge in Indiana ruled that the 2013 marriage of a lesbian couple wed in Massachusetts must be recognized by the Hoosier State immediately.

Knowing all this, it is easy to forget that not long ago our federal government — from the institution to the people elected to run it — casually dismissed the concerns of LGBT Americans, if they acknowledged them at all. A  June 9, 1965, letter to Frank Kameny, a founding father of the LGBT civil rights movement, from Vice President Hubert Humphrey is a perfect illustration of this.


(The Kameny Papers Project)

Neither the Federal Executive Orders on fair employment nor the Civil Rights Act which constitute the authority for this program on non-discrimination are relevant to the problems of homosexuals.

The cheery “Best wishes” is the ultimate kiss-off. But times would change our views on gay rights. Slowly, at first. And then with a speed in recent years that has left proponents and opponents of LGBT equality alike amazed by the progress.

As Obama said in Austin, Tex., today, “[T]he laws LBJ passed are now as fundamental to our conception of ourselves and our democracy as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are a foundation, an essential piece of the American character.” The president went on to say, “Our rights, our freedoms — they are not given. They must be won. They must be nurtured through struggle and discipline and persistence and faith.”

(The Kameny Papers Project)
(The Kameny Papers Project)

From Kameny’s persistence in the face of official rejection in 1965 to those same-sex couples pushing for marriage equality in Oklahoma, Utah, Texas and Virginia, LGBT Americans are fighting to win. Marriage equality and the fairness that would flow from it nationwide are coming.  It’s just a matter of when.

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.