Published February 17, 2017
Opening with a ringing endorsement of Thomas Paine — “These are the times that try men’s souls” — former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a UB audience that activism and engagement give citizens the power and ability to shape the course of the nation.
Speaking to a packed house Thursday at UB’s 41st Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration in Alumni Arena on the North Campus, Holder said questioning the status quo is a key part of King’s legacy.
“In celebrating Dr. King’s accomplishments, we need to see him for who he really was,” he said. “A man of great courage who helped guide dramatic change, and as a result, worked to shape our society and nation.”
Referring to the administration of President Donald Trump in his brief opening remarks, Holder told the audience the nation must address where the new administration wishes to go.
“We have allowed ourselves to become comfortable in routines,” he said. “And dangerous, dangerous complacency.
“What we are seeing these past few weeks goes beyond what is healthy. Reliance on facts has been discarded. Effective and long-held alliances have been questioned.”
As he repeated — and read in full —Paine’s quote from “The American Crisis,” Holder pointed out that Paine’s articles had a huge impact on the American Revolution when the colonists needed inspiring words.
“And it is as relevant today as it was then,” he said.
Under President Barack Obama, Holder served as the 82nd attorney general of the United States from 2009-15. He was the first African-American to serve in that position, and third-longest-serving attorney general in the nation’s history. Holder oversaw the government’s efforts to address critical issues at the intersection of law and public policy, including national security investigations and prosecutions, the defense of voting rights and marriage equality, and reform of the federal criminal justice system.
After ending his brief remarks, Holder took questions for more than an hour. The questions were submitted by students and audience members, and also came in live, via Twitter. The session was moderated by Makau W. Mutua, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Law, and James A. Gardner, interim dean of the School of Law.
In his response to a question from Gardner asking him what he felt “made the hard decisions hard,” Holder said that for him, tough decisions go against longstanding traditions.
“One case that stands out to me was having to make a decision whether to defend the Defense of Marriage Act,” Holder said. “Both sides made well-reasoned, thoughtful arguments for their viewpoint, which I greatly respected.
“What stood out for me, and ultimately what I based my decision not to defend DOMA on, was the sordid history of how gays and lesbians were treated.”
A follow-up question, tweeted in from a student, asked Holder: “How do you make decisions that are not in sync with your own moral compass?”
“When I was a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, we had a drug case where the defendant had been caught with what was clearly a small quantity and was convicted of possession on that amount,” Holder responded.
“I was working together with another prosecutor and we recommended a sentence of five to seven years as appropriate. But we were told ‘no’ — a sentence of 15 years was required.
“I believed that was excessive and completely inappropriate. But there was no flexibility at all. So I resigned from the case. I did not resign from my position, however.”
Holder went on to say allowing people to have differing points of view, as attorneys and judges, brings inherent value to and provides guidance in the judicial process. He added that he has held to that belief throughout his career, including as attorney general in both Obama administrations.
Holder recently signed on to lead the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a newly formed political group aimed at untangling the voting districts some feel are designed to strengthen one party rule in Washington and many state capitals. He will also serve as an adviser and outside counsel to the California Legislature to help continue the progress that state has made with respect to climate change, health care, immigration and civil rights issues.
Gardener, noting that “we are here to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King,” asked Holder how he felt King might have viewed the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision to curtail the Voting Rights Act.
“Well, I think that case — Shelby County vs. Holder — is one of the worst decisions the Supreme Court has ever made,” Holder began. “In disallowing Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the court has put itself on the wrong side of history. To make it more difficult for Americans to vote — and to do this for short-term political gain — is completely wrong. History will not be kind.”
Asked if he has any role models, Holder told the audience that his father “is the wisest man I ever knew.”
“He was abandoned by his father, which I did not find out until later on in my life. He didn’t finish high school. That was something he worried about, and he wanted all of his children to be educated.”
Holder cited African-American minister and human rights activist Malcom X as another key inspiration. He said that after losing his parents by the time he was 13, convicted as a youth and sent to prison, Malcom X “transitioned from prison to someone who understood the universality of human beings.”
Holder also said one of the advantages of a public life is the possibility of meeting a wide range of interesting people.
“That is how I met Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He has become a very good friend of mine, and — I do not want to upset those of you in the audience who are Michael Jordan fans — but Kareem is the greatest basketball player of all time. Hands-down.
“He is someone whose company I enjoy and whose life wisdom I respect,” he said.
Holder also gave his thoughts on the mass incarceration rate in the United States. “We imprison a higher percentage of our people than any other nation in the world. We are 5 percent of the world’s population and we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population,” he said.
“We have lost sight of proportionality and should focus much more on prevention.”
Asked about the Trump administration’s executive order barring people from seven Middle Eastern countries from entering the U.S., Holder said he believes the order is unconstitutional.
“I think it will make the struggle against terrorism more difficult for us, not less,” he said. “The order was not well-thought-out. It is short-sighted and plays right into their hands.
“We are a nation of immigrants. We are great because we are an immigrant nation.”
Holder said immigration renews the nation and keeps it young.
“I worry where this administration is going,” he said. “If you agree with them, that’s fine, you should work with them. If you are opposed, then protest.
“Don’t underestimate the power of citizen engagement, of street protests. Progress is not linear.”