The Holder legacy [Editorial]

Of all the offices in the federal government, the job of attorney general may be one of the toughest as well the most thankless. Eric H. Holder, who announced last week that he is stepping down as the nation's top law enforcement official six years after becoming the first African-American ever to hold that position, was no stranger to the controversy that comes with the job nor to the endless stream of criticism directed at its occupants. His tenure was not perfect — the failure to crack down sufficiently on the financial speculators who brought our economy to ruin being perhaps the greatest shortcoming. But his lasting legacy will be as one of the most forceful champions of civil rights ever to hold his position.

As a child who grew up during the high tide the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Mr. Holder was inspired by the example of one of his predecessors in the office, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy's efforts to secure equal rights for African-Americans at a time when racial segregation and discrimination were enshrined in both law and custom were as unpopular in the South and elsewhere as they were necessary if America was ever to realize its democratic ideals. Mr. Kennedy attracted plenty of criticism for challenging an unjust social order, yet history has proven him right. The struggle for justice is never easy, but without it progress is impossible.

Mr. Holder learned that lesson early on and resolved to build on it. As attorney general he recognized that despite the successes of the civil rights movement of the 1960s — and even the election of the nation's first black president — America was still far from being a truly color-blind society and that many aspects of the criminal justice system, while ostensibly silent on the subject of race, disproportionately penalize African-Americans and other people of color. Among Mr. Holder's greatest achievements were efforts to roll back mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, and to bring justice to those who suffered from the disproportionate penalties meted out for possession of crack as opposed to powder cocaine. That the U.S. prison population has now started to decline after a decades-long rise is nothing short of remarkable.

Mr. Holder made rolling back state laws that restrict access to the ballot box a top priority of his administration. In addition to advocating for reform of laws barring felons from voting, which disproportionally affect communities of color, his tenure as attorney general saw the Justice Department challenge voter ID laws across the country that hearken back to the Jim Crow era, when states used literacy tests, poll taxes and other ostensibly "colorblind" subterfuges to disenfranchise black voters.

On Mr. Holder's watch the Justice Department also became a early supporter of equality for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people and crucially couched that struggle as an extension of the civil rights movement. He pushed the administration not to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union between one man and one woman, when it was challenged in the courts, and he worked to make attacks against gays and lesbians prosecutable as a hate crime.

Very few attorneys general make a truly lasting mark on history. Mr. Holder's critics are no doubt certain that his distinction of having been held in contempt of Congress will make him an exception to the rule. But history is more likely to judge his clashes with Republicans as trivialities compared to his record on civil rights.

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