As the nation's first African-American attorney general, Eric Holder has been largely unflappable and never more so than when being grilled by Republican lawmakers who frequently tried to polarize him. In the past six years, he's also had to boldly confront a broad range of emotionally charged and challenging issues, from a rollback on voting rights to the tragic deaths of children and unarmed African-American males — sometimes with his heart on his sleeve.
In part one of BET.com's conversation with Holder, which took place in Selma, Alabama, during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, he reflects on the historic nature of his appointment and what he might or might not have done differently. In part two, the attorney general talks about how their work has strengthened the bond he shares with President Obama, his fractious relationship with Republican lawmakers, guilty pleasures and more.
What has it meant for you as the first Black attorney general to be here in Selma at this time in history?
I was an American history major in college, so from that perspective it was significant just to be at the site of one of the great events in American history. But there's an emotional component as well. The reality is that I would not be the attorney general of the United States but for the fact that people sacrificed, took a huge amount of risks in order to assure that African-Americans would have the right to vote, which resulted, I think ultimately, in the election of Barack Obama as president and his decision to nominate me to be attorney general. So, both emotionally and historically, this has been a significant weekend.
Do you feel that you and the president are living embodiments of how far African-Americans have come and the promise of the original march?
I don't think there's any question that the fact that he's the president and I'm attorney general — and I think people have to remember also that I'm going to be succeeded by an African-American woman — is an indication of the progress that we have made. And to not focus on that progress, to not acknowledge that progress, does a great disservice and is almost an insult to those brave pioneers, those brave people who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They sacrificed everything, risked everything so that this day could actually happen.
Are you discouraged by the fact that as we celebrate this anniversary, a key portion of the Voting Rights Act has been dismantled and there is a struggle to restore it?
I don't know if I'd say I'm discouraged. I'd say I'm disappointed and energized. Our Justice Department has used the remaining tools that are left in the Voting Rights Act to be very aggressive in making sure that people have the right to vote. Loretta will continue to do exactly that.
It is in some ways disappointing, though, that 50 years after the march here in Selma, we're still talking about voting rights and the need to come up with ways in which we protect people's ability to vote. But, let me be very, very clear: this administration, this attorney general and my successor as attorney general will do all that we possibly can to ensure that those sacrifices were not in vain.
You have famously been more outspoken about race and your experiences as a Black man in ways that some critics wish that President Obama would be. Was it easier for you because it's more of an extension of who Eric Holder is or because as attorney general you can speak more freely about race in ways that the president can't?
I'm not sure I necessarily agree with the premise. If one looks at the speeches that the president has given: that great race speech before his election, the speech that he gave in Selma on Saturday where he talked about race. And he's talked about race between those two speeches in very frank and candid ways as I think I've tried to do as well.
We share a worldview. He is a man who is proud of his heritage and has done a great deal not only for the American people, because he's president of the United States, but I think has given particular emphasis to African-American issues as well. My Brother's Keeper, for instance, is a recognition that young Black men need help, need special attention and that is something that he has devoted a substantial part of his administration to and I think it is something that he will do after his presidency is over.
Do you think it's kind of serendipitous that you were in place as attorney general and he was in the White House during this time when the nation is struggling to have a conversation about race?
I think that his election, my selection as attorney general probably helped, I hope, generate that conversation. It's something that our nation has not done enough of. But we're also at a stage now where we've talked about race a fair amount. We need to move to the stage where we're coming up with concrete action so that we deal with these racial problems that for too long have bedeviled this nation. That's what the president is all about and he's got very concrete things he's asking Congress to do. He's using his executive authority to alleviate the problems that are faced by people of color in this country.
After the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, what kind of conversation did you have with your own son?
I didn't think I was going to have to have that conversation with my son as my father had with me. I sat down and talked to him about the way in which you interact with people who have guns, when you're confronted by people in law enforcement you should always be respectful and just try to get through the situation and then we'll deal with it after the incident has occurred.
It was, for me, a hard conversation to have — first to get his attention and to make him understand this was something that is important. It's not something he's ever experienced. But again, it was kind of sad because I thought that maybe I was going to be the last generation that would have that kind of conversation with his father, but unfortunately I felt the need to share that with my boy as well.
How would you describe your legacy as attorney general?
That will be for historians to decide, but what I hope people will say is that he was a person who changed things where change was needed, who focused on civil rights issues, who protected the national security in a way that's consistent with our values, looked at the totality of the American family and tried to make us all equal, including our LGBT brothers and sisters, who protected the right to vote. I hope these are the things that people will say and also that he was a man who was unafraid to speak his mind and then base his actions on what he said. Again, it will be ultimately for historians to determine.
Is there anything you would do differently or a time when you second-guessed yourself?
Not sure I would say I second-guessed myself but I certainly was disappointed by the fact that after the shootings at Sandy Hook in Newtown we were unable to affect or bring into existence some common sense gun safety measures. I know the nation was ready; all of the polls indicated that [it] was ready for really basic, common sense gun safety rules but Congress, for whatever reason, simply didn't pass them. I think that would be my biggest disappointment.
I've questioned myself. I've talked to Vice President Biden — he and I led the administration's [gun control] effort — to think of things we might have done differently. I'm not sure there were things we could have done differently, but I certainly wish we had a different result.
Read part two here.
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: Lonnie Tague)