In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail Dr. King wrote, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The onus is on us to put our shoulder to the wheel.
Some will remember Eric Holder for his historic rise from the Bronx where he was born to become the first black Attorney General in the U.S. I will remember him as a man who put his shoulder to the wheel of history. He tried to expose and challenge racism in the 21st century to a society in deep denial. Professor Patricia Williams tells a story about family who enjoys their dinner while ignoring their screaming grandmother who is locked in her room upstairs. That scenario is a metaphor for America’s studied inability to confront the reality of racism, whether it is the shooting of Michael Brown, shot according to three witnesses when his hands were up, or the terrible gulf between the conditions of joblessness and poverty in inner city areas from Liberty City to South Central.
Holder had the courage to call out the denial. In a 2009 Black History Month speech Holder stated that Americans had retreated to “race protected cocoons where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made…. We are a nation of cowards,” he said.
Holder, an idealist, had tried to speak truth to power, to hold whites accountable for the white privilege they continued to enjoy at the expense of black America. But the mainstream (read white) media were trying to sell the idea that Obama’s election had made race irrelevant. Holder was not on message. They labeled Holder an “angry black man” – for telling the truth.
Every major elected official has a choice between two roads. The low road is labeled caution and leads to political survival. The high road is labeled aggressive reform and runs through a minefield.
Holder chose the high road. He became a brave and able warrior for civil rights. He was “the inside man” who tried to be a bridge between the aspirations for justice of people of color and the power structure of Washington.
He reduced lengthy prison sentences, started investigations against police departments in record numbers, got a racist Arizona immigration law struck down and he fought for voting rights. Texas in 2011 passed a law requiring citizens to present a photo i.d. before they would be allowed to vote. But in Texas the offices to get the i.d. were sometimes 200 miles away in rural areas. Also for immigrants the cost of immigration papers that they would need was hundreds of dollars. Holder said of the money they would have to pay for the i.d, “We call those poll taxes.” Proving a case of systemic intentional discrimination is very hard to do. Some compare it to winning a ground war in the Middle East. Holder, a soldier’s son, won the case anyway.
In 2009 the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms started a “gun-walking” program. They knowingly sold guns to criminals in Mexico. The idea was they would track the guns back to key figures in Mexican drug cartels. ATF lost track of some of the guns. Federal agent Bryant Terry was tragically killed as a result. According to the New York Times there was never any evidence that Eric Holder approved –or knew about-the operation. The operation was called “fast and furious.” That described the reaction of Tea Party extremists in control of the House of Representatives. They mounted a ferocious war of words calling Holder “a murderer” and holding him in contempt.
Holder’s record on issues of privacy is complex. He wiretapped journalists and thousands of Americans who had committed no crime- all in the name of national security. But his legacy on civil rights has been compared to that of Robert Kennedy. His victories are historic, good deeds that took courage to accomplish. But Washington extremists would not allow those good deeds to go unpunished. Holder’s challenges to racism in its many forms was the real reason they pressured Obama to let him go. The “fast and furious” scandal was just a pretext. We will miss Eric Holder. When he was in office social justice had a friend.
Donald Jones is Professor of Law at the University of Miami. His latest book is Fear of a Hip Hop Planet: America’s New Dilemma (2013).