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America's first black attorney general: Eric Holder's legacy

As the nation's first black attorney general, Eric Holder was often the Obama administration's most outspoken voice on issues of race and civil rights.
Attorney General Eric Holder
Attorney General Eric Holder is photographed at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. on March 7, 2014.

If Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president made history, his selection of Eric Holder as the nation’s first black attorney general may represent the most concrete efforts of "hope and change" the Obama administration has sought to achieve.

When Obama wouldn’t or couldn’t address sticky issues of race in America, Holder has often been the administration’s most outspoken voice.

"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," Holder said at the White House Thursday as he announced his resignation.

Holder has attacked Republican efforts across the country to pass voter ID laws that would disproportionately suppress African-American and Latino voters. He issued new guidance to schools and the zero-tolerance discipline policies that have sent minority students on a fast track to the criminal justice system. He has urged the reduction of harsh sentences for low-level drug offenders — a move seen as a way of remedying the decades-long war on drugs that has filled U.S. prisons with black and brown bodies.

"When the history of his tenure is written, Eric Holder will ultimately be recognized as one of the finest attorneys general this country has ever known."'

When Holder was appointed the nation’s top lawyer in 2009, he promised to use his office to aggressively enforce civil rights law. And while he has been criticized for his role in a number of controversial policy matters involving civil liberties and a well-publicized botched gun trafficking sting, his work in enforcing rights and balancing the scales of justice, especially for minorities, has earned him high praise.

“When the history of his tenure is written, Eric Holder will ultimately be recognized as one of the finest attorneys general this country has ever known,” Sherrilyn A. Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said shortly after news of Holder’s resignation was announced. “In the field of civil rights there are few who could even claim to rival this attorney general's dedication, strategic focus and commitment."

Ifill called Holder’s vision for the civil rights division of the Department of Justice “one of restoration and transformation, from his leadership on voting rights, to legal services for the poor, to criminal justice reforms and, in recent weeks, to his forceful response to the tragic events in Ferguson.”

As protesters across the country in recent years have filled the streets in the wake of racially charged killings of young, unarmed black men by whites, Holder has spoken of his own encounters with racial profiling and stereotypes.

“I am the attorney general of the United States,” he told a group of local college students during a recent visit to Ferguson. “But I am also a black man … I understand the mistrust.”

Holder volunteered to go to Ferguson, where weeks earlier the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer sparked unrest, rebellion and violent clashes between protesters and the police.

It was the second time in as many summers Holder reiterated that sentiment: That as a black man, he understands the struggles of being black in America.

During his trip to Ferguson, Holder also assured local stakeholders that the DOJ would take on a parallel investigation into Brown’s killing to determine whether or not any of his civil rights were violated during his fatal encounter with the officer who shot him.

Holder’s involvement in the case and his assurances resonated with many residents who have lacked trust in local law enforcement and the city’s nearly all-white leadership. It was certainly a turning point in the early days of the case, as protesters were still marching nightly demanding justice.

But it was perhaps the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin that signaled a turning point for the way the Obama administration would handle matters of race. And while the president offered his most open, revealing statements on race in the wake of the teen’s death, Holder offered the most personal.

"I am the attorney general of the United State. But I am also a black man … I understand the mistrust."'

Just days after Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was cleared of all charges in the case, Holder stood before a group of hundreds gathered just 30 minutes from where Martin was killed for the NAACP’s national convention in Orlando.

He called Martin’s killing tragic and unnecessary, and said the teen’s death and the dialogue on race and treatment of black men it sparked had brought up unpleasant experiences in his own past.

As a younger man, Holder said he was pulled over twice on the New Jersey Turnpike and had his car searched when he was sure he wasn’t speeding. Other times he said he had been stopped by police while simply running to a catch a movie at night in Washington, D.C. 

“I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor,” Holder said.

But it took the Trayvon Martin case for Holder to sit down with his then 15-year-old son and talk about the complicated, sometimes dangerous intersection of race and fear in America. It was a conversation that Holder said his father once had with him when he was growing up.

That talk — among three generations of Holder men — was one shared in countless African-American families: How to handle interactions with white people and more specifically with white authority, particularly armed officers.

It’s a conversation that includes reference to the unfounded fears and stereotypes so many white people have of blacks, about wary storeowners and suspicious police and neighbors. But most of all, the talk often includes warnings that the fears held by others could very easily get you hurt or, worse, killed.

“This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down,” Holder told a crowd that summer day in 2013. “But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy.”

In addressing the ways in which stereotypes and biases, both socially and legally, have essentially cleaved many young black men from the belief that this too is their America, Holder essentially sent out a smoke signal to frustrated black people.

The Martin case helped motivate Obama to launch his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, his most ambitious efforts aimed at bolstering the lives of young men of color. Holder has been an ardent champion of the effort and the Justice Department along with other federal agencies are working in tandem to utilize their resources to enhance the initiative.

Just last week, Holder announced the launch of a multi-million dollar initiative aimed at bridging the gap between law enforcement and the communities they serve, saying that the fallout in Ferguson following Brown’s death was a reminder of just how much work needs to be done to ease the friction between blacks and the police.

RELATED: GOP lawmakers react to Holder’s resignation

“The events in Ferguson reminded us that we cannot allow tensions, which are present in so many neighborhoods across America, to go unresolved,” Holder said in announcing In announcing the three-year, $4.75 million National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. “As law enforcement leaders, each of us has an essential obligation and a unique opportunity to ensure fairness, eliminate bias, and build community engagement.”

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called Holder’s DOJ “one of the most forward-thinking and visionary Justice Departments in memory.”

“Remembering only his historic confirmation as the first African-American attorney general would not do justice to his tenure over the past six years, which was one of the most successful in modern American history,” Henderson said in a statement.

During a recent town hall meeting convened by Obama to announce the expansion of My Brother’s Keeper, Holder told MSNBC about how his life experience and the experiences of other black men had shaped his work and career.

“I grew up in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Queens, New York, and I think of all the advantages I had by having a dad there and guys who grew up with me on the block and are in fundamentally different places,” Holder told MSNBC. “Drug problems. Time in jail. And how to come up with ways in which we make my path the more regular one, as opposed to the way too many people, who are my peers, ended up.”