In accepting the Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association for his long-term contributions to the advancement of civil rights, civil liberties and human rights in the United States, former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., didn’t say he was running for president, but he certainly sounded like he was.
Holder, who is on record saying he’s considering a run and will make a decision sometime early next year, received the award at the Thurgood Marshall Award Dinner on Saturday night, during the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. Robert Weiner, chair of the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, said the award recognized Holder for his “unflagging devotion to fairness and integrity in the justice system, for his defense of the core right to vote and for his continuation of the work that Thurgood Marshall advanced.”
After thanking the ABA for recognizing his work and deeming him “fit to accept this recognition that my work in some small way exemplifies even a fraction of the contribution to society that Thurgood Marshall made over the course of his storied career,” the nation’s first African-American attorney general launched into what could have been a presidential stump speech.
“I believe that we are today engaged in a struggle for the soul of our nation. This nation has faced trying times before and has always remained ultimately true to our founding ideals,” said Holder, currently a partner at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C. “Some of the pillars of our democracy – the judiciary, the media, our law enforcement – are under spurious but potentially effective attack. Now, as it was in Thurgood Marshall’s time, those who have the capacity to shape the law have the responsibility to use that power to stand up for and to defend the institutions that are the foundation of this republic.
“Now we as lawyers must join the movements that have sprung up all around us and we must lead these movements. This is not a time for despair, this is a time for action,” he continued.
“I see a brighter future and the courage and commitment of ordinary people doing extraordinary things nationwide. Americans of all ages, races and backgrounds who refuse to give in to fear and frustration, who resist truly shameful attempts to exploit and divide the American people, who are keeping up the fight for the safety and civil rights of all.
“I see a brighter future in people who take to the street and to the offices of their elected leaders.
“I see a brighter future in the example of those who in the wake of the senseless tragedies in our school shootings have found their own young voices in calling for solutions that respect our forebearers, our law enforcement community and our legal system while prioritizing our most precious resources – our children.
“I see a brighter future in those who have raised their voices in protest of the inhumane and un-American separation of children from their parents along our southern border.
“I see a new and better America.”
Holder challenged the room full of lawyers, judges and law students to take up the mantle of Thurgood Marshall.
“Today, as in the past, it is incumbent upon lawyers to stand for that which defines America at its best,” he said. “As a profession, we have great power. But with that power comes enormous responsibility. At this moment when the American system is being tested, we cannot take our democracy for granted. It is fine to be frustrated with our government and to be dissatisfied with the status quo. I know that I am. Yes, our union is not perfect but with the help of all of you in this room tonight it must become so. I am optimistic that the greatness of this country lies in the future that we will define and not the past that some create in their mind’s eye.”
Holder said that Dr. Martin Luther King was correct in his statement that that the arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice. “But it only bends towards justice when people like you, comfortable people, put their hands on the arc and pull it toward justice,” he said. “I look forward to working with all of you in the months and years to come so that we can strive for what I think is possible, a truly better America. We can do this. We can make this country better.”
Holder served as the 82nd attorney general from February 2009 to April 2015 under President Barack Obama. He was the third-longest serving attorney general in U.S. history. As attorney general, he initiated reforms of the criminal justice system and re-invigorated enforcement of civil rights laws.
The keynote speaker for the dinner was Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which was founded in 1940 under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall.
She, too, said there is much work to be done by civil rights lawyers at a time when the rule of law is under attack and “when we are at a time of profound danger in our country.”
“It is true,” Ifill said, “that our democratic ideals and institutions are under attack like never before in my lifetime. And the role of civil rights lawyers at such a time as this will be critical and are critical to our survival as a democracy.”