As national protests over the case spread Thursday, the Sanford police chief stepped down temporarily in the face of sharp criticism. In Florida, Justice Department officials met with Martin’s parents. And the case is certain to come up Friday when Holder talks with a group of black ministers at a previously scheduled meeting at the White House.
In an administration headed by the first African American president and weighted with expectations of racial progress, much has rested on Holder, as White House aides have emphasized Obama’s need to stay out of legal and local issues.
Again this week, Holder’s department has provided the White House cover with civil rights advocates, who began asking for federal intervention soon after Martin was fatally shot in a confrontation with neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
“On policy issues and issues that involve race, Eric Holder is now, during this campaign context, the official black guy of the Obama administration,” said the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, senior policy adviser to the Church of God in Christ, one of the largest black denominations in the country. “Because the president cannot in any way, directly or indirectly, be associated with anything that whispers race, and for perfectly logical reasons.”
Justice officials said they ordered an investigation in the Martin case solely for law enforcement reasons.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said he is satisfied with Holder’s role and the administration’s response, although he would like to hear from Obama directly.
“President Obama has spoken through his Department of Justice on this case. They are doing more than any other Department of Justice in recent memory when it comes to taking on cases like this,” Jealous said. “Still, it’d be very appropriate for our president — any president — to speak out about the need for our nation to finally deal with the issue of racial profiling.”
Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, had called 911 to report a suspicious person in the gated community north of Orlando. He told police that he shot Martin in self-defense.
Martin’s case is the sort of emotional racial issue that has tripped up President Obama, who has sought a careful balance between fulfilling the grand hopes associated with his vaunted status in American race history with his practical political need to attract and keep support from skeptical working-class white voters.
If he appears disinterested, he risks upsetting his most loyal constituency. But, as this president has learned the hard way, when he steps into matters of race, he instantly alters the news cycle and siphons headlines from his preferred themes of the day.