WASHINGTON (AP) — Eric Holder talks about the nation's civil rights struggles in a way no previous U.S. attorney general could — by telling his own family story.
As he increasingly pushes his Justice Department to protect voting rights and end unfair prison sentences and police brutality, Holder has drawn on personal history to make the case that the nation has much work to do to achieve justice for all. It's a legacy he'll likely draw on when he travels Wednesday to Ferguson, Missouri, to supervise the federal investigation of the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer.
Holder tells how his father, an immigrant from Barbados proudly wearing his World War II uniform, was ejected from a whites-only train car. How his future sister-in-law, escorted by U.S. marshals, integrated the University of Alabama in spite of a governor who stood in the schoolhouse door to block her. How as a college student, he was twice pulled over, his car searched, even though he wasn't speeding.
And Holder recalls that the slaying of black teen Trayvon Martin in 2012 prompted him to sit down with his own 15-year-old son for a talk about the way a young black male must act and speak if confronted by police — the same talk his father had given him decades earlier.
"I had to do this to protect my boy," the nation's first black attorney general said at an NAACP convention last year.
President Barack Obama is sending Holder to Ferguson to bring the full weight of the federal government into the investigation of the death of another young black man, Michael Brown, who was unarmed when a white police officer shot him multiple times Aug. 9. Daily and nightly protests, sometimes marred by rioting and looting and met with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets from police, have rocked the suburban St. Louis community since.
In an open letter published late Tuesday on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website, Holder promised a thorough investigation into the Brown shooting while calling for "an end to the acts of violence in the streets of Ferguson."
"The Justice Department will defend the right of protesters to peacefully demonstrate and for the media to cover a story that must be told," Holder wrote. "But violence cannot be condoned. I urge the citizens of Ferguson who have been peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to join with law enforcement in condemning the actions of looters, vandals and others seeking to inflame tensions and sow discord."
Holder has led an unusually fast and aggressive Justice Department response to the local case, sending teams of prosecutors and dozens of FBI agents to investigate and arranging a federal autopsy on top of one by local authorities.
Still, protesters in the streets say they aren't convinced justice will be done. Holder's record on civil rights and personal commitment may help reassure the community when he visits.
"It's a powerful message," said William Yeomans, a law school fellow at American University who worked in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division for more than two decades. "He's the embodiment of law enforcement, and the positive contribution he can make here is to assure the community that the federal government is taking very seriously the quest for justice in this incident."
Holder reinvigorated a civil rights force at Justice, Yeomans said, that had been scaled back and demoralized during President George W. Bush's administration.
Holder's department has been especially strong in going after police misconduct, both through criminal civil rights cases and lawsuits against police departments, Yeomans said.
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