For the duration of his tenure as Attorney General, historic in his serving as the first African-American to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, Eric Holder has been the conscience of the Obama White House. The Attorney General has been the equivalent of the no-holds barred uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table, speaking truth even when the rest of the family is uncomfortable with hearing frank and candid talk. Yesterday we learned that the administration will be losing that voice as President Obama announced that Attorney General Eric Holder will be stepping down after serving six years.
The Attorney General was the President’s town crier on matters of race and justice, and often spoke forcefully when President Obama was reluctant to do so. It was Eric Holder who branded America a “nation of cowards” for its reluctance to tackle race related issues. Where the President spoke in conciliatory tones, often disappointing African-Americans, the Attorney General was fearless in pronouncing that race still matters in America and that racism still disrupts opportunity for African-Americans and other minorities. His departure shifts the administration philosophically as it no longer has a “race man” determining the course of justice.
In his remarks yesterday President Obama stated, “As younger men, Eric and I both studied law. And I chose him to serve as Attorney General because he believes, as I do, that justice is not just an abstract theory. It’s a living and breathing principle."
During his tenure Holder aggressively defended voting rights and worked to protect the principles of the Voting Rights Act. The Attorney General also took a firm stand on the issue of state laws prohibiting felons from voting. He also confronted federal drug sentencing laws and moved to eliminate sentencing disparities that disproportionately impact racial minorities. Attorney General Holder took on the issue of the disproportionate discipline meted out to Black students in the nation’s public schools and racial disparities in public education. Holder called on states to repeal “stand your ground” laws in the wake of the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. When a police officer in Ferguson Missouri killed an unarmed Black teenager, the Attorney General made his way to the town to meet with residents and community activists. Under Holder, civil rights regained its footing in the Department of Justice and the Attorney General was fearless in claiming a federal role in addressing inequities rooted in racism.
It was Holder’s tenacity that angered Republicans on Capitol Hill and made the Attorney General a favorite target of conservatives in the GOP. Republicans on the Hill were so resentful of Holder they slapped him with a contempt charge over the “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking scandal, a charge that the Attorney General delighted in confronting his critics. When testifying before congressional panels Holder did not shy from confrontation with his Republican detractors and appeared to relish the opportunity to appear before lawmakers as the first Black Attorney General.
President Obama referenced the breadth of the Attorney General’s work during his remarks. “He has been relentless against attacks on the Voting Rights Act because no citizen, including our service members, should have to jump through hoops to exercise their most fundamental right. He’s challenged discriminatory state immigration laws that not only risked harassment of citizens and legal immigrants, but actually made it harder for law enforcement to do its job. Under his watch, the Department has brought a record number of prosecutions for human trafficking and for hate crimes because no one in America should be afraid to walk down the street because of the color of their skin, the love in their heart, the faith they practice, or the disabilities that they live with,” remarked the President.
Justice was at the heart of Holder’s service, a lifelong passion that he referenced in his remarks in the State Dining Room of the White House. He noted, “I have loved the Department of Justice ever since as a young boy I watched Robert Kennedy prove during the Civil Rights Movement how the Department can and must always be a force for that which is right. I hope that I have done honor to the faith that you have placed in me, Mr. President, and to the legacy of all those who have served before me.”
The Attorney General has served in the Department of Justice under six presidents, including a stint as acting Attorney General under President George W. Bush. His six years in the top slot makes Eric Holder one of longest serving Attorney Generals in American history. He will remain in his current position until the President nominates a successor and that individual is confirmed by the Senate. Holder made clear yesterday that his departure should not be seen as his walk into the sunset. “In the months ahead, I will leave the Department of Justice, but I will never, I will never leave the work. I will continue to serve and try to find ways to make our nation even more true to its founding ideals.”
Photo courtesy The White House