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Winston Churchill once said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you stood up for something in your life.”
Is no instance is this quote more applicable than the tenure of Attorney General Eric Holder, who stepped down on Thursday after leading the Department of Justice for six years and in, turn, became a prime target for Republicans intent on destroying everything that both he and the Obama Administration stood for. Despite constant attacks, as well as deliberate misinformation by Republicans, Holder stood strong and for six years became a champion for civil rights, gay rights, and voting rights. Holder himself acknowledged what the Department of Justice had been able to accomplish despite overwhelming opposition, when he stated in an April 2014 speech:
The last five years have been defined by significant strides and by lasting reforms even in the face, even in the face of unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive adversity.
In other words, eat your heart out Republicans.
Because despite everything they threw at Holder, despite every subtle and overt insult, despite every act of subterfuge, despite every call for resignation, Holder not only survived but excelled. There’s a reason why President Barack Obama stated that Holder had done a “superb job” in his speech announcing Holder’s resignation on Thursday. Because despite it all, Holder left a larger than life legacy as the nation’s first African American Attorney General. Despite six years of manufactured outrage from Conservatives, Eric Holder was still able to enact positive change for millions of Americans throughout the country.
At the forefront of Holder’s legacy will be his stance on marriage equality. As the Supreme Court appears poised on rule on nation-wide gay marriage in the coming year, Holder should be seen as a driving force toward this country advancing toward marriage equality. As Attorney General, he was integral in the Obama Administration’s decision in 2011 to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which led to the Supreme Court overturning DOMA in United States v. Windsor. Gay rights group consistently credited Holder with advancing their cause as more and more states have legalized gay marriage. Holder offered up the simple yet elegant justification of his support for marriage equality when he said, “We must endeavor — in all of our efforts — to uphold and advance the values that once led our forebears to declare unequivocally that all are created equal and entitled to equal opportunity.”
In addition, Holder used his position as Attorney General to enact positive change regarding the United States’ failed drug war. He went on record as having endorsed shorter sentences for drug offenders now in prison. Along with these shorter sentences, Holder was also an advocate for using rehabilitation instead of jailing drug offenders and has also been a strong advocate for eliminating the disparity as to how the justice system charges defendants in crimes involving either crack or powder cocaine. By raising awareness of these issues, Holder helped create a national discourse regarding the extreme racial disparity that make our nation’s prisons. As someone who grew up in New York City, Holder saw the drug war firsthand and saw the damage it did to low-income communities throughout this country. Because of his experiences and his desire to lessen drug offenses, Holder made history in August of 2013 when he announced the Justice Department would allow the Colorado and Washington state marijuana laws to go into effect, thereby ending marijuana prohibition in this country.
Holder also ruffled some feathers when it came to voting rights, mainly because he believed all people should actually be able to vote. As Republicans continued to attempt to prevent low-income and people of color from voting, Holder made a public push to fight what he called “restrictive state laws” that prevented these people from voting. Holder used his authority in this regard by having the Justice Department sue Texas over its restrictive voter identification regulations. His consummate standing up for voting rights earned him a few enemies, especially from Conservatives who believed Holder was misusing the power of the office and was actually being divisive and tearing the country apart on racial lines. Conservatives saw Holder’s support of equal voting rights as a way to expand executive power and to infringe upon the state’s rights to determine their own standard to identify voters in their states.
And last, but certainly not least, Holder left a powerful impression with his handling of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. In addition to ordering a civil rights probe into the incident, Holder gave a powerful speech at a community college in August where he talked about his own experiences dealing with race. Holder said, “We have seen a great deal of progress over the years. But we also see problems and these problems stem from mistrust and mutual suspicion … I can remember being stopped on the New Jersey turnpike on two occasions and accused of speeding. Pulled over…. ‘Let me search your car’… Go through the trunk of my car, look under the seats and all this kind of stuff. I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me.” Holder’s speech helped calm the residents of Ferguson and many people felt his presence there made it possible for them to have an open dialogue about race and race relations for the very first time since Michael Brown was killed.
It was this speech that showed Holder at his best: A humble, honest, and caring man who could relate to the experiences of people out there because he shared their struggle and saw how his office could be used for the betterment of all Americans. Despite six years of consummate Republican opposition, including disgraceful behavior on behalf of Congressional Republicans anytime there was a Fast and Furious hearing, Holder remained committed to his goal of providing opportunities for those who previously had none. Through the Justice Department’s work on gay marriage, voting rights, the drug war, and civil rights, Holder was able to leave a lasting legacy of progress and reform that has helped shaped the nation the past six years. Everything he accomplished as Attorney General was done despite overwhelming opposition from a political party hellbent on seeing him fail.
Perhaps Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of civil rights icon Medgar Evans said it best when she said “There has been no greater ally in the fight for justice, civil rights, equal rights and voting rights than Attorney General Holder.”