Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder gave a farewell speech at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on Friday. Holder told his now former colleagues that their work today would be remembered as "another golden age." (Reuters)

Eric H. Holder Jr.’s six-year tenure as the first African American attorney general was marked by accomplishments that made him a liberal icon, as well as controversy that turned him into one of the most divisive figures in the Obama administration.

Holder made strides in criminal-justice sentencing reform and launched initiatives to reduce massive overcrowding in federal prisons. He spoke out candidly about race relations and revitalized the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which has investigated more than 20 police departments for excessive force and discrimination.

A priority of Holder’s Justice Department was the pursuit of legal equality for gay men and lesbians. Four years ago, Holder overruled key government lawyers in deciding that his department would no longer back the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman and denied federal benefits to same-sex married couples.

But Holder, the 82nd attorney general, was a lightning rod on Capitol Hill, where he tangled with conservative lawmakers over issues from voting rights to a botched gun operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that allowed thousands of guns into Mexico and the hands of drug cartels. In June 2012, Holder became the first sitting attorney general held in contempt of Congress after his department withheld documents that Republican lawmakers demanded as part of their probe into the flawed gun operation.

Holder has said he plans to return to private law practice, possibly helping start an institute focusing on race relations. He may also write a book.

During a farewell speech Friday at the Justice Department, where Holder spent more than a quarter-century of his career, he highlighted the department’s accomplishments over the past six years, saying he took particular pride in his efforts to empower the powerless and protect civil rights.

“While many Americans look back at the department under Attorney General Robert Kennedy as a ‘golden age,’ ” he said, “I think 50 years from now, and maybe even sooner than that, people are going to look back at the work you all did and say that this was another golden age.”

Toward the end of his remarks, Holder removed the “Free Eric Holder” wristbands he had been wearing during the months of Senate stalemate that delayed the confirmation of his successor, U.S. Attorney Loretta E. Lynch.

Stepping aside from the podium, he tossed them to his audience, saying, “I think we can officially say now that Eric Holder is free.”