It was obvious Obama didn’t want to see him leave. From the east dining room of the White House, Obama heaped effusive praise on Attorney General Eric Holder, who had fought tirelessly for justice and equality in his administration since 2009. The president thus loses not only one of the few personal friends he had in his cabinet, but he also loses a key ally in the struggle for civil rights — a man familiar with the concerns of black Americans, and a man who gave voice to their anger.
No sooner than had he been named the first African-American attorney general, Eric Holder began attracting attention. In a speech to Justice Department employees given in February 2009, Holder said, “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot in things racial, we have always been, and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.” While it’s true that blacks and whites work together during the day, after hours and on weekends, American society is little changed from where it was 50 years ago.
In contrast to Obama, the 63-year-old Holder — who was an early supporter of Obama’s candidacy — was strongly influenced by the civil rights struggle for black equality. As a law student, Holder took part in protest sit-ins at Columbia University, attempting to get an office named for Malcolm X. His wife’s sister was one of the first two African-American students to enroll at the University of Alabama, and had to be protected by National Guard troops.
In his acceptance speech, Obama himself mentioned Holder’s father, who had served as a soldier during World War II, risking his life for America only to find upon his return to civilian life that he would be refused service in restaurants. In the summer of 2013, the attorney general brought up his father’s biography in a much-publicized speech given to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, civil rights organization.
According to Holder, his father took him aside as a young man and explained to him how a black man had to behave if he were ever stopped by the police. He said he was sure when his father gave him that lecture that his generation would be the last one to need it, but the sad reality was he had to warn his own 15-year-old son about it after unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin had been shot to death. It is typical of America’s 82nd attorney general — often referred to as Obama’s lightning rod or liberal warrior — to speak so clearly and unmistakably about existing grievances.
Holder did the same in the wake of the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Obama, as America’s first black president, was obliged to be the statesman and call for calm, while Holder clearly showed more understanding of the ensuing rage among blacks in the small suburb of St. Louis.
Following days of violent protests, it was finally Eric Holder who journeyed to Ferguson in order to restore order. The Justice Department began investigating the Ferguson police department at the beginning of September. Many observers agreed with the assessment in The Washington Post that Holder was the de facto leader of black America that Obama could never be — and also, probably, never wanted to be.