Holder’s Civil Rights Legacy

African American Activists Call For Justice In Shooting Deaths In Ferguson And NYC

Jeffrey Toobin declares that after Obama was reelected, “Holder found himself—or rediscovered himself”:

He decided to embrace civil rights as his cause. His civil-rights division filed lawsuits against the voting restrictions imposed by the legislatures in Texas and North Carolina. He began the process of reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in the federal prison population. He went to Ferguson, Missouri, to assure its citizens that there would be a full and fair investigation into the death of Michael Brown, a teen-ager shot dead by a police officer. It is tempting, even hopeful, to believe that this was the real Eric Holder.

Holder also spoke multiple times about the discrimination he believed he had experienced as a black man.

“I am the attorney general of the United States, but I am also a black man,” he said during a visit to a community meeting in Ferguson, Mo., this year, where he recounted his anger at being stopped by police while running down the street in Washington, D.C., and while driving on the New Jersey turnpike. “I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me.”

Like many other efforts, he spoke these words not just as a cabinet secretary but as a social activist, urging the country to be better. “The same kid who got stopped on the New Jersey freeway is now the Attorney General of the United States,” he said in Ferguson. “This country is capable of change. But change doesn’t happen by itself.”

David Graham adds:

With Holder’s departure, Obama will lose a close friend—an apparently rare breed—and an essential ally on issues close to the president’s heart. Who Obama nominates to succeed him, and whether the nomination is successful, will offer some hint of how the president intends to close out his term in office. But the new attorney general is unlikely to have as eventful a term as Eric Holder.

But Eric Posner argues that Holder’s record is not one “that a civil-rights-promoting attorney general can be proud of”:

But two things can be said in Holder’s defense. First, the attorney general just doesn’t have much power to compel a president to comply with civil rights. The attorney general is merely the president’s legal adviser; he doesn’t have any authority to force the president to obey the law. In principle, Holder could have resigned in protest of these civil rights violations, but he surely thought that he could do more for civil rights by staying in office and picking his battles, and rightly so.

Second, while Holder’s decisions disappointed civil libertarians of all stripes, they were not obviously wrong. Indeed, they were mostly right. “In times of war, the law falls silent,” said Cicero. This is something of an exaggeration in the United States today, but it remains true that the rights of people considered a threat to a country tend to diminish as the magnitude of that threat increases, for good reason. Holder, like his Bush administration predecessors Alberto Gonzalez and John Ashcroft, adopted a pragmatic rather than rigidly legalistic position on civil rights, human rights, and the laws of war. That pragmatism will be his legacy.

(Photo: Michael Brown Sr., father of Michael Brown, who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, wears a tie with his son’s image on it during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on September 25, 2014. Rev. Al Sharpton called for federal review of racial violence and discrimination in the law enforcement community. By Mark Wilson/Getty Images)