FORMER US president Jimmy Carter has lamented continuing inequalities between black and white Americans during a 50th anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights Act in Texas that will feature four of the five living former US leaders this week.
Mr Carter said “too many people are at ease” with black unemployment rates that exceed the national average and schools in some places he said were still basically segregated alone racial lines.
The 89-year-old was the first president to speak at the three-day summit at the Lyndon B Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, which is marking the anniversary of the 1964 US law intended to ban discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
“We’re pretty much dormant now,” Mr Carter said, who led the US from 1977 to 1981.
“We accept self-congratulations about the wonderful 50th anniversary – which is wonderful – but we feel like Lyndon Johnson did it and we don’t have to do anything any more.”
The unemployment rate for black people in the US was 12 per cent in February, against 5.8 per cent for white people.
Mr Carter, who grew up in Georgia, recalled being influenced by black culture and calling for the end of racial discrimination after being elected governor of the southern state in 1970.
But four decades later, he expressed regret that racial and gender inequalities persist.
The 39th US president touched on wage gaps between women and men and reiterated his support for gay marriage.
During a wide-ranging interview to a packed auditorium, Mr Carter indicated that weakened rules on political campaign contributions were fuelling a lack of risk-taking in Washington.
“What happens is that the political environment is flooded with money since the Supreme Court made that stupid decision,” he said, a reference to the high court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that lifted restrictions on independent political spending by corporations and labour unions. “A lot of that money that pours into the campaigns is spent on negative commercials… so by the time the election’s over, you have a polarised Texas or polarised Georgia, red and blue states.
“Then, when people get to Washington, they don’t trust each other.”
President Barack Obama, also a Democratic party president, is scheduled to give the keynote address today. Bill Clinton was due to speak late last night, and George W Bush will be the event’s final speaker also today.
George HW Bush, 89, is the only living former president not attending the summit.
Mr Johnson’s presidency is often viewed in the dark shadow of the Vietnam War, but the library believes his legacy deserves as much attention for the Texan’s victories on civil rights.
The summit began with former Republican Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and San Antonio mayor Julian Castro – a fast-rising Democrat, aged 39, often touted as a possible successor to Mr Obama.
They urged the US Congress to tackle immigration reform before the end of the year.
“The stupidest thing we can do economically is make them leave. We don’t have anybody to replace them,” said Mr Barbour, referring to the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the US illegally.
“So the impracticality of sending them home should be obvious to everyone.”
Their discussion was interrupted by a woman in the crowd shouting. She was described as a so-called DREAMer – a young person who immigrated illegally into the United States. She called on Mr Castro to urge Mr Obama to stop deportations of immigrant families.
The woman, who was allowed to remain in the auditorium, interrupted again at the end of the session but Mr Castro did not respond until later.
“My hope is that his administration will go about it in a different way. I’m not comfortable with the number of deportations,” Mr Castro said.