For nearly six years, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has been President Barack Obama’s legal pugilist, relentlessly fighting against racial inequality, defending the Voting Rights Act, and challenging discriminatory state immigration laws.
And yet during a recent farewell ceremony, it was Holder who thanked America for allowing him to serve in the position.
“I am grateful to this great nation who gave a Black kid from East Elmhurst, Queens, New York City more support and opportunities than any individual could have hoped for,” he said, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). “Thank you America.”
Holder is stepping down this month as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer and Loretta Lynch, a U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District in New York, has been nominated as his replacement. He was feted last week in Washington, D.C. at the DOJ headquarters, where he was serenaded by the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin and praised by the president, who called him “one of our finest.”
“You have done a remarkable job,” the president said, according to a White House statement. “It’s hard to let you go.”
Indeed, Holder, known for his calm exterior and for his plainspokenness, leaves behind a long trail of accomplishments. NewsOne looks at some of Holder’s greatest hits:
Real talk about race
Holder famously brawled with conservatives and Republicans during his tenure on issues of race in America and rarely backed down. During a recent interview with Politico, he acknowledged feeling that “some of his own struggles with Republicans in Congress during his six years in office were driven partly by race.” The comment prompted Fox News to run the headline: “On His Way Out The Door, Eric Holder Race-Baits One Last Time.” We can’t say we’re surprised about that one.
Checking police conduct
In the wake of high-profile deaths of Blacks at the hands of police in cities cross the nation, including Ferguson, Mo., and New York City, the DOJ has been under pressure to tackle police brutality in the Black community. In December, Holder dropped some serious knowledge about why the relationship between minorities and police had not progressed in America since the shooting of Amadou Diallo. Diallo, a 23-year-old West African immigrant, was shot by police in his New York City apartment building in 1999. And last summer during a visit to Ferguson, he recounted his own experience with racial profiling as a Black man:
“It means that we, as a nation, have failed,” he said during an interview with MSNBC host Joy Reid, which was published in New York Magazine. “It’s as simple as that. We have failed. We have understood that these issues have existed long before even that 2001 memorandum by that then-young deputy attorney general. These are issues that we’ve been dealing with for generations.”
Battling for voting rights
Since 2009, the Department of Justice has monitored state laws that would significantly change how elections are conducted and has continued to ensure that state practices and procedures comply with federal law.
But Holder took it to the matt in the summer of 2013, when the Supreme Court voted to gut the Voting Rights Act by ruling Section 4 unconstitutional. He said the decision had the potential to negatively affect millions of Americans across the country.
“The Department of Justice will continue to carefully monitor jurisdictions around the country for voting changes that may hamper voting rights,” he said in a statement. “Let me be very clear: we will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action—using every legal tool that remains available to us—against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise.”
Tackling the ridiculously high number of Blacks and Latinos behind bars
Holder has never been particularly shy about addressing issues of race. So that’s why it came as no surprise when he raised questions about why so many Black and Latino men are behind bars, pointing out that Black male offenders receive sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on White males convicted of similar crimes.
“[I]t’s time to ask tough questions about how we can strengthen our communities, support young people, and address the fact that young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system—as victims as well as perpetrators,” he said. “We also must confront the reality that—once they’re in that system—people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers.”
Overhauling antiquated drug laws and minimum mandatory sentence reform
Holder does not mince words when it comes to reducing the prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, who were convicted during President Reagan’s failed war on drugs in the 1980s. The concern comes at a time when offenders for similar offenses today receive smaller sentences, he noted. Last summer, Holder rolled out a series of policies to address the discrepancy. He is not alone. Democratic and Republican Senators from New Jersey to Illinois to Utah are working to overhaul prison sentence guidelines in an effort to give judges more control to mete out punishments for nonviolent drug offenders.
Holder said, “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason.”
Holder and Obama have come under fire by the Right for refusing to call ISIS Islamic extremists, but that’s about as much criticism as Holder might receive about his record on terror. Under Holder’s watch, the DOJ has foiled multiple terrorist plots, convicted and incarcerated dozens on terrorism-related charges; and collected intelligence from and about terrorists through the criminal justice system. Among those convicted is Wesam El-Hanafi, who was sentenced in January in Manhattan federal court to 15 years in prison for his extensive efforts to support al-Qaeda – including financial support and facilitating surveillance of a New York City landmark for an attack – that spanned nearly three years.
Fighting for Civil Rights
Whether the issue was racial equality, same-sex marriage, or immigration laws, Holder showed up suited for battle and his record will speak for itself through the years.
At Holder’s farewell ceremony, President Obama said that one of the longest serving attorney generals has relentlessly defended the Voting Rights Act—and the right to vote—and pushed back against attempts to undermine that 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 their job,” Obama said. “He’s brought a record number of prosecutions for human trafficking and hate crimes, and resolution to legal disputes with Native Americans that had languished for years.
“Several years ago, Eric recommended that our government stop defending the [military’s don’t ask, don’t tell] Defense of Marriage Act, because he wants our country to be a place where love is love—and where same-sex marriage is recognized on the federal level, and same-sex couples can receive the same federal benefits as anybody else.”
In closing, an emotional Obama said: “With Eric Holder as its lawyer, America has become a better country. Which means that saying goodbye is bittersweet.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty