AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
(AP) -- Eric Holder talks about the nation's civil rights struggles in a way no
previous U.S. attorney general could - by telling his own family story.
he increasingly pushes his Justice Department to protect voting rights and end
unfair prison sentences and police brutality, Holder has drawn on personal
history to make the case that the nation has much work to do to achieve justice
for all. It's a legacy he'll likely draw on when he travels Wednesday to
Ferguson, Missouri, to supervise the federal investigation of the fatal
shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer.
tells how his father, an immigrant from Barbados proudly wearing his World War
II uniform, was ejected from a whites-only train car. How his future
sister-in-law, escorted by U.S. marshals, integrated the University of Alabama
in spite of a governor who stood in the schoolhouse door to block her. How as a
college student, he was twice pulled over, his car searched, even though he
Holder recalls that the slaying of black teen Trayvon Martin in 2012 prompted
him to sit down with his own 15-year-old son for a talk about the way a young
black male must act and speak if confronted by police - the same talk his
father had given him decades earlier.
had to do this to protect my boy," the nation's first black attorney
general said at an NAACP convention last year.
Barack Obama is sending Holder to Ferguson to bring the full weight of the
federal government into the investigation of the death of another young black
man, Michael Brown, who was unarmed when a white police officer shot him
multiple times Aug. 9. Daily and nightly protests, sometimes marred by rioting
and looting and met with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets from police, have
rocked the suburban St. Louis community since.
an open letter published late Tuesday on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website,
Holder promised a thorough investigation into the Brown shooting while calling
for "an end to the acts of violence in the streets of Ferguson."
Justice Department will defend the right of protesters to peacefully
demonstrate and for the media to cover a story that must be told," Holder
wrote. "But violence cannot be condoned. I urge the citizens of Ferguson
who have been peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to join with
law enforcement in condemning the actions of looters, vandals and others
seeking to inflame tensions and sow discord."
has led an unusually fast and aggressive Justice Department response to the
local case, sending teams of prosecutors and dozens of FBI agents to
investigate and arranging a federal autopsy on top of one by local authorities.
protesters in the streets say they aren't convinced justice will be done.
Holder's record on civil rights and personal commitment may help reassure the
community when he visits.
a powerful message," said William Yeomans, a law school fellow at American
University who worked in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division for
more than two decades. "He's the embodiment of law enforcement, and the
positive contribution he can make here is to assure the community that the
federal government is taking very seriously the quest for justice in this
reinvigorated a civil rights force at Justice, Yeomans said, that had been
scaled back and demoralized during President George W. Bush's administration.
department has been especially strong in going after police misconduct, both
through criminal civil rights cases and lawsuits against police departments,
civil rights push got off to a difficult start, however.
after taking office in February 2009, Holder called the United States "a
nation of cowards" when it comes to talking about race in a Black History
Month speech. Conservative backlash was swift. Holder quickly toned down his
rhetoric while quietly rebuilding the division.
much of Holder's early tenure, his public profile was shaped by battles over
how to prosecute terror cases, the use of armed drones to kill terror suspects
overseas and his handling of various Obama administration controversies. A 2012
vote in the Republican-controlled House made Holder the first sitting Cabinet
member ever held in contempt of Congress over his refusal to hand over without
preconditions documents involving the Fast and Furious gun investigation.
than a dozen Republican lawmakers have called for his impeachment for not
prosecuting anyone in the Internal Revenue Service for targeting conservative
groups and for his department's probes of journalists linked to news leaks.
over the last three years, civil rights has moved to the forefront, starting
with Holder's opposition to state voter ID laws that make it harder for the
poor to cast ballots. He compared Texas' voter ID law to a poll tax, the
now-illegal fees imposed across the South for decades to block
African-Americans from voting. The Justice Department is now suing Texas and
North Carolina over their voting restrictions.
the past three years, the department's Civil Rights Division has filed more
criminal civil rights cases than during any other period in its history -
including record numbers of hate-crimes cases," Holder noted in April.
has indicated he's unlikely to stay on as attorney general through the end of
Obama's second term, but says he has more to accomplish before departing. That
may partly explain his accelerated push for equal treatment under the law.
has worked on easing mandatory sentences, especially for nonviolent drug
offenses that have a disproportionate impact on black men.
ordered his prosecutors to stop charging many drug defendants with offenses
that carry mandatory minimum sentences, pushed a U.S. Sentencing Commission
proposal to lower guideline penalties and backed legislation to give judges
more discretion in sentencing.
focused reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable,"
he said in March, "it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible
used the Martin killing two years ago to criticize "stand your
ground" gun laws in states like Florida. The Justice Department is
investigating the 17-year-old's death but has yet to say if it will file
federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch
volunteer who said he killed Martin in self-defense and was acquitted in a
even partnered with the Education Department to try to change the so-called
"school-to-prison pipeline," where minority children - especially
black students - are suspended and expelled at a rate that's three times higher
than that of white children.