Holder's Sister-in-Law Blazed Trails at Justice

By Carrie Johnson
Wednesday, January 14, 2009; 5:59 PM

If he withstands a bruising confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, Eric H. Holder Jr. will become the nation's first African American Attorney General.

But Holder won't be the first member of his family to play an important role in the Justice Department's civil rights history books.

Holder's late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone Jones, helped integrate the University of Alabama in 1963, brushing past an angry mob with the help of then-deputy attorney general Nicholas deB. Katzenbach. She awoke after her first night away from her family to learn that another civil rights hero, Medgar Evers, had been shot dead in his driveway in Mississippi.

Undeterred by the violence and quieter snubs on campus, Jones stayed at the school for two years, graduating with a business degree only to find that she could not secure a job in the segregated South. Instead, she moved to Washington where she had formed close ties with Justice Department leaders and took a post at the civil rights division.

There, she joined a handful of other African American employees, who formed a tight knit community, according to Paul Webber III, a retired D.C. Superior Court judge who worked as an attorney in the Justice Department's antitrust division in the late 1960s.

"She was a very courageous woman, very bright, very interested in progress of all kinds," Webber recalled this week.

Civil rights are "not an abstract concept," Sharon Malone, Vivian's sister and Holder's wife, said in a recent interview. "It's something our family has lived through."

Sharon Malone, who was in first grade at the time of her sister's arrival at the University of Alabama, said her older brothers took turns staying up at night on the family's front porch, wielding an old shotgun as protection against threats.

Holder is expected to cite his family's personal experience as he vows to place new emphasis on civil rights, including protecting minority employees, fair housing and voting laws at his confirmation hearing, according to people briefed on his testimony.

The department's record on enforcing civil and voting rights laws in the Bush years came under heavy fire from independent analysts and interest groups. In the latest flare up, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine exposed political and racial epithets by former senior officials in the civil rights division in a report issued Tuesday.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company