“Throughout his long career in public service, Eric has built a powerful legacy of making sure that equal justice under the law actually means something; that it applies to everybody – regardless of race, or gender, or religion, or color, creed, disability, sexual orientation.” President Barack Obama at last Saturday’s Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Awards Dinner
Last Thursday, as I stood with a group of civil rights leaders and grieving family members at a press conference in Washington, DC to demand a full federal investigation of the police killings of two unarmed Black men — Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York — we learned that Eric Holder, our nation’s first African American Attorney General, was resigning as head of the Justice Department. After six years of serving as “the people’s lawyer,” Holder will also leave as the most ardent and effective Attorney General for civil rights in American history thus far. President Obama praised him as both “a great friend of mine” and “a faithful servant of the American people.”
Since 2009, Eric Holder has overseen the Justice Department’s large portfolio of responsibilities – from counter-terrorism to government corruption to white collar crime. Under his leadership, the overall crime rate and the overall incarceration rate declined by 10 percent – the first time we have seen such a simultaneous decline in more than 40 years. Among his many accomplishments, we are especially grateful that he honored his pledge to reinvigorate the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. As my civil rights colleagues and I stood together at the press conference devoted solely to calling for justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner and their families, we knew that Eric Holder was standing shoulder to shoulder with us and with millions of citizens across the nation who are committed to protecting voting rights, combating human trafficking and hate crimes, eliminating sentencing disparities, creating alternatives to incarceration, guaranteeing equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters, and ensuring that Americans of all races and walks of life are treated equally and fairly by our criminal justice system.
We have been especially encouraged by Holder’s pledge to pursue civil rights investigations in the wake of the recent spate of killings of unarmed Black men by police and other law enforcement officers. His visit to Ferguson to meet with Michael Brown’s family and other concerned citizens demonstrated tremendous compassion and courage. When local officials, including Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, were nowhere to be seen, Eric Holder’s presence assured the people of Ferguson and across the nation that their voices were being heard at the highest levels of government.
Attorney General Holder has been disparagingly accused by his critics of being too activist and too partisan. But as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, he had a clear mandate to ensure that our civil rights laws were protected, strengthened and enforced – and he has fulfilled that duty. As the son of working-class parents, Eric Holder had an up-close and personal experience with racial and economic hardship, and these humble beginnings gave him a special insight into and empathy for the challenges facing so many of our citizens in these perilous times. Eric Holder has been an impactful Attorney General and a bold and unapologetic champion for civil rights – and our nation is better for his service and leadership.
While he is stepping down as head of the Justice Department, we are encouraged by what he said at his resignation announcement, “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.”
We certainly hope to see him on the front lines of civil rights and equal justice for many years to come.
Marc H. Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League