Chronicler of Presidents is Bringing Four Together

Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library, with, President Jimmy Carter. Updegrove is hosting an April summit featuring four presidents.
Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library, with, President Jimmy Carter. Updegrove is hosting an April summit featuring four presidents.

Few occasions are notable enough to bring together former and sitting presidents — inaugurations, funerals, the opening of a presidential library. But next month, four presidents will participate in an Austin event that goes beyond ceremonial roles. And one man is largely responsible for putting the event together.

Mark K. Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, will host President Obama and former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter for a three-day Civil Rights Summit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

The event from April 8-10 will include afternoon panel discussions and keynote addresses from the presidents reflecting on the landmark legislation that Johnson led in 1964.

“I think this is important enough that emblematically it’s important for our presidents to converge around this,” Updegrove, 52, said. “They all have their stories to tell around civil rights, and they’ve all had contributions that they made toward the steady progress of ensuring that there’s equality among all Americans.”

The summit is the latest accomplishment for Updegrove, a presidential historian who became the LBJ Library’s director in 2009 — the fourth in the library’s 43-year history. He has continued to build attention for the library, Johnson’s legislative legacy and the office of president through three acclaimed books, news interviews and articles. He is also incorporating modern ways for museum visitors to absorb information.  

“To study the presidents is really to study our past and our history, why we’ve ended up evolving how we have as a nation,” Updegrove  said. "It's always been of great interest to me."

Updegrove, who had been a media executive for Time, Newsweek and Yahoo, wrote his first book, Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House, in 2006, and it served as a catalyst for him to pursue his second act of becoming a full-time presidential historian.

Since taking the helm, Updegrove has hosted conversations with several presidents at the library.

And he has overseen an $11 million renovation that modernized the LBJ Library, including interactive explanations of Johnson’s decision-making during the Vietnam War and how legislation passed during Johnson’s presidency affects life today. Museum visitors can now download an app that offers different library tours, including one in Spanish. Since the upgrade in 2012, staff members say, the number of visitors has steadily increased.

“I would like to think that the LBJ Library is a national treasure,” Updegrove said. “In so many respects, it was the first modern library.”

While Updegrove said the subject matter lured the presidents to participate in the Civil Rights Summit, he coordinated with members of the LBJ Foundation and presidents’ staffs to secure the four commitments.

“It’d be very braggadocious to beat my chest and stake that claim, but I’m just grateful to them for being here,” Updegrove said.

His accomplishments are praised by museum visitors and members, directors and Larry Temple, the chairman of the LBJ Foundation.

“He’s remarkably entrepreneurial,” Temple said. “Mark is one of those rare human beings that has just some stellar ideas with great creativity, but then he knows how to follow through and be pretty steadfast.”

Temple considers Updegrove the best of the 13 directors within the U.S. presidential library system, citing his breadth of knowledge of the presidency and his published works.

Updegrove hopes the Civil Rights Summit sets up similar discussions in the future.

“President Johnson wanted this place to also be a forum where we would discuss the issues of our day,” Updegrove said, “not only look back at the Johnson administration and what happened during that consequential and turbulent era, but also a forum to talk about what’s important to America and our world today and in our future.”

Disclosure: The LBJ Library and Museum has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.)