During the first day of his confirmation hearings in January 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "The Civil Rights Division is unique. It is in some ways the conscience of the Justice Department. And I think in some ways you can measure the success of an attorney general's tenure by how the Civil Rights Division has done."
In the five years since, the Justice Department's priorities have mirrored what Holder said five years ago. There is federal litigation on voting rights pending in several states, and earlier this year, Holder called for changes in how low-level drug offenders are sentenced. He has given many speeches, at home and abroad, on race and civil rights. Earlier in July, he told ABC News that "we are still a nation that is too afraid to confront racial issues."
And now, he is in Ferguson, Mo., meeting with community leaders, elected officials, police officers and residents to learn how the Justice Department can best help in the wake of Michael Brown's death, and the protests that have followed -- and to see how the civil-rights investigation he ordered is going.
And as the picture above sums up neatly, Holder is now the most high-profile variable on the ground in the St. Louis suburb, and is about to become the most -- or only -- visible member of the presidential administration's views and involvement in the issue. And many people are interested to watch what will happen now that he's arrived.
One of his events today was at St. Louis Community College Florissant Valley, where the above picture was taken. Some of the students he spoke to there said they were concerned about the police. "I understand that mistrust," he said in remarks at the college. "I am the Attorney General of the United States. But I am also a black man."
He relayed stories of being pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike twice, and having his car searched. He remembered the time he went to see a movie in Georgetown, and the cops yelled at him, "Where are you going? Hold it!" He was a federal prosecutor at the time.
He ended his speech by saying, "change is possible. The same kid who got stopped on the New Jersey freeway is now attorney general of the United States. This country is capable of change. But change doesn't happen by itself. So let's start here. Let's do the work today."
Holder wrote an op-ed for the St. Louis Dispatch before arriving in Ferguson, which ended on a similar note. "This is my pledge to the people of Ferguson: Our investigation into this matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent," he wrote. "Long after the events of Aug. 9 have receded from the headlines, the Justice Department will continue to stand with this community."
People may judge the success of Eric Holder on how well the Civil Rights Department does until his exit, but for now, they will measure the Obama administration's success in Ferguson by how well Holder's Civil Rights Division performs -- and how deftly ittangoes with local authorities.
There are still many people working to help learn what happened on Aug. 9, and in many cases the actions of local authorities and residents will still be the most consequential. But at least for today, many people are waiting to see what Holder does next.
For more on what's happening in Ferguson, check out the Washington Post's great reporting.
- Top Obama advisers tell African American leaders that justice will prevail in Ferguson
- In Ferguson protests, ‘a turning point’
- The QuikTrip gas station, Ferguson protesters’ staging ground, is now silent
- For Mo. governor, Ferguson presents crisis both real and political
- Gun sales are up near Ferguson