Civil rights and criminal justice activists greeted the news of Attorney General Eric Holder's resignation with a mixture of sadness and surprise. "Say it ain't so," they collectively sighed.
It is, but he's not gone yet, Holder reminded his audience as he prepared to deliver a voting rights speech at a forum hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation forum at its annual legislative conference.
"I woke up today and was still attorney general," he said to laughter. "And although my time at the Justice Department will draw to a close in the coming months — once my successor has been nominated and confirmed — I want you to know that my commitment to this work will never waver. And in the meantime, there remains a great deal to be done. I have no intention of letting up or slowing down."
Despite the "once-unimaginable progress in expanding economic opportunity, overturning legal discrimination and expanding access to the ballot box," he said, there's still a great deal of work to be done to defend and expand that progress.
The most paramount issue for Holder is voting rights, of which he has been a ferocious defender. And as Americans prepare to vote in the upcoming midterm elections, the Justice Department continues to litigate voting rights cases in several states.
The attorney general cited a victory in an appeals case this week in Ohio that will enable early voting to begin as it has in previous election cycles.
"This outcome was a milestone in the effort to protect voting rights even after the Supreme Court’s deeply misguided decision in Shelby County," Holder said.
DOJ also is monitoring a challenge to voter ID laws in Wisconsin, Texas and North Carolina.
"In the months ahead — as we prepare for the upcoming elections — leaders from the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section will be coordinating with civil rights organizations, U.S. attorneys, and others to dispatch federal election monitors to polling places around the country, just as we do routinely during every election season," he added. "We will never waver, and never rest, in our determination to ensure the integrity and impartiality of this vital process."
During a panel discussion that followed Holder's remarks, National Urban League president Marc Morial told the audience that eligible voters have a duty to turn up at the polls for every election. Citing the oft-used example of Ferguson, Missouri, he noted that in 2012, when President Obama was on the ballot, 54 percent of African-Americans voted. The following year, when the city held local elections, just 6 percent cast ballots.
"We cannot allow self-suppression," Morial said. "We've got to speak to the responsibility and necessity of voting as an exercise of power."
Sherillyn Ifill, who heads NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that the nation is at a defining moment that is not limited to political battles on Capitol Hill, or attacks on Obama or Holder or even the ramifications of the Shelby case. It is a time, she said, when the nation must decide whether it is willing to turn back all of the work of the civil rights movement that made "this country great and able to look itself in the mirror."
"It’s a year for mobilization and to recognize what's at stake. You can't decide that because it's a midterm election it doesn't matter," Ifill warned. "We'll be in the courtroom but we need boots on the ground."
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)