Yesterday, US Attorney General Eric Holder publicly confirmed that he would be resigning from his post within the next few months, as soon as Congress could approve his replacement. He will resign after six years as Attorney General and one of the most senior members of President Obama’s cabinet. Though Holder had already said his time was winding down, his most recent announcement came with a new level of certainty and imminence.
If one were to argue that over the past 6 years, Holder has had the second most difficult job in Washington, there would hardly be much of an opposing argument. In fact, one could make the case that because of the manner in which Holder met issues of injustice head on and spoke plainly about the country’s racial climate from as early as his first few days in office that there were times that, self-imposed or not, his job was just as difficult as Barry O’s. As the first Black Attorney General in America’s history, Holder did an admirable job in the face of staunch opposition that often bordered on disrespect.
There is a popular comedy sketch in which President Obama has an anger translator who interprets the President’s remarks and then delivers them in a much less filtered tone. If there was any real life version of this, it has been Holder. Even as recently as events in Ferguson, MO and Beavercreek, OH where the Department of Justice continues two civil rights investigations regarding questions surrounding discriminatory policing practices, Holder has been the one to plainly acknowledge the considerations of race and historical context while the President has had to bow to political constraints and exercise greater restraint in choosing his words.
From a policy perspective, Holder’s record is rock solid and reflects an understanding of how certain practices have harmed our community for years. He pushed for a reform of the mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders that saw countless Black men and women imprisoned for crimes involving crack-cocaine where their White counterparts dealing cocaine received much lower punishments. When Tea Party conservatives continued to employ tactics aimed directly at disenfranchising Black and Brown Democratic voters, not only did Holder stand up in opposition, but he arguably put his legacy on the line by challenging those who sought to turn back the proverbial clock on voting and civil rights. Even after the Supreme Court dealt a crushing blow to the Voting Rights Act through their decision in Shelby v. Holder, the Attorney General stood at the ready and articulated his disappointment with the decision while still exhibiting appropriate leadership in offering possible solutions to preserve what remained of the Act. Even as Holder pushed for the return of voting rights to convicted felons who have been released, one cannot help but sense Holder’s true understanding that things were not as they should be for persons of color and that he was unafraid to incur the wrath of the majority in order to do what was within his power to fix it. And, while it may be pure conjecture, it hardly seems a stretch that as Holder went about executing his agenda, he had the support from President Obama for doing and saying things that simply could not have come out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
All was not perfect with Holder’s tenure, and it never could have been. Many may question the timing of this resignation, in the midst of two high profile and important civil rights investigations. Then there was the over-blown issue of the Fast and Furious arms scandal coupled with what some might label as civil rights investigations of George Zimmerman and other civil rights violations that may have seemed to have more bark than bite. Still, when viewed within a comparative context of attorney generals of the past, these civil rights issues weren’t anywhere near their radars. It is almost unfathomable to imagine John Ashcroft on the ground in Ferguson, MO with residents and activists discussing the issue of racial profiling from a personal perspective. This, of course, begs the question of Holder’s replacement and, given the ripeness of many of these civil rights issues, calls for the President to make sure that he gets Holder’s successor absolutely spot on.
Despite what the title of this piece might imply, the unfinished business that remains is ours and not Holder’s. His legacy is one that has forced America to rethink notions of justice and race in ways that even President Obama could not. Just as Holder remarked during his resignation that he may leave the job, but he will never leave the work, we must understand that our work also continues. It is now up to us to collectively ensure that the pressure remains high and we do not fall asleep at the wheel given the work Holder did while in the job he held.
Thank you for your service, Attorney General Holder. Job well done, sir.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former Kings County (Brooklyn, NY) prosecutor and federal civil rights trial attorney. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr.