Eric Holder's Expansive Vision of Civil Rights

The attorney general has worked to include LGBT rights and other issues under the definition.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Reuters

Americans are so accustomed to speaking about civil rights as an historical era—Martin and Malcolm, Selma and Montgomery, Jim Crow and segregated fountains—that there's a danger of forgetting that it's an ongoing constellation of issues, not just something for the history books.

Nearly every article about Eric Holder stepping down as attorney general Thursday (including my own) mentioned his careful stewardship of civil rights, which he has made a focus of his nearly-six-year tenure. Some of what Holder has done falls squarely in the tradition of his role model for the job, Robert Kennedy. He has fought fiercely against state laws that limit voting by either requiring voters to have certain state IDs or limit voting times, and he was an outspoken critic of the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which effectively removed a major Justice Department tool for combatting voting restrictions. Voting laws are a classic federal enforcement area for civil rights.

Holder was also, of course, the man who went to Ferguson, Missouri, serving as both an ambassador to try to cool tempers and a federal presence to investigate overzealous law enforcement and look into accusations of police brutality. Once again: It's classic Justice Department civil-rights work.

But Jeffrey Toobin made a great point in an interview with Vox's Ezra Klein. Asked to name Holder's biggest legacy, Toobin pointed to something he didn't do: Defend the Defense of Marriage Act against a legal challenge.

I think throwing the weight of the Justice Department behind the cause of gay rights will be seen as enormously important. Announcing support for the lawsuit against the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA] was the biggest specific item in that regard, but in every possible way, the Justice Department has committed itself to the idea that discrimination against gay people is unlawful. That's had enormous implications, and it will continue to reverberate as same sex marriage works its way through the courts.

Gay marriage is clearly a civil-rights question, too. That's true whether you think it's a civil right that ought to be afforded or not. Because "civil rights" is so often taken to mean the 1960s push for racial equality, it's hard to speak about civil rights in a neutral way, and opponents of marriage equality bristle at the comparison, which they take to call them the same as '60s racists—a comparison many gay-marriage backers make explicit.

One of Holder's (many) notable entanglements with Republicans was a battle with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The Justice Department sued Louisiana over its school-voucher program. In challenging vouchers, a favorite conservative education proposal, the department connected them to the long and ongoing battle to desegregate American schools, especially in the South. "Students leaving these schools with State-issued vouchers impeded the desegregation process," it argued in a brief. "Moreover, some of these schools had achieved or were close to achieving the desired degree of student racial diversity, and the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the progress made toward desegregation." Jindal replied by likening Holder to Governor George Wallace "standing in the schoolhouse door" to block integration; a not-amused Holder responded by mailing the governor a copy of Representative John Lewis's memoir of his civil-rights work.

Holder's pursuit of sentencing reform has also been inspired by racial disparities in the prison population and in sentencing for minority offenders. And in his last days as attorney general, Holder seems to be continuing the work. That includes classic civil-rights causes—new guidelines on racial profiling are forthcoming—but the attorney general also spoke out Friday in favor of full voting rights for residents of the District Columbia, who get electoral votes in presidential elections but have no congressional representation. As Andrew Giambrone and Daniel Weeks have pointed out here, that's rightly thought of as a civil-rights issue, too: Not only is it a matter of voting, there's also a deeply rooted racial dimension because of D.C.'s large black population.

It's clear that Holder views these as part of a suite of civil-rights issues. Here's how he recapped his tenure during comments with President Obama Thursday:

Over the last six years, our administration—your administration—has made historic gains in realizing the principles of the founding documents and fought to protect the most sacred of American rights, the right to vote.

We have begun to realize the promise of equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters and their families.  We have begun to significantly reform our criminal justice system and reconnect those who bravely serve in law enforcement with the communities that they protect.

Pressing on civil rights may be Holder's greatest accomplishment at Justice, but his efforts can only be understood if they recognize the expansive way Holder has interpreted the term—fighting to preserve victories from the past, but also broadening the definition of civil rights to include new groups and new questions.