Eric Holder isn’t very happy with America right now.
“Dissatisfied” is the word he used repeatedly during a Monday keynote address at the Peabody Hotel as part of the commemoration of 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4.
But Holder, the former Obama administration attorney general, suggested he draws strength and parallels to King, who was often frustrated, too.
“The fact that Dr. King’s strength was rooted in frustration — just as much as in faith — is a great comfort to me. I say that because as proud as I am of our
country, my country, and as grateful as I feel for the progress we’ve made and the opportunities the civil rights movement made available to me, the truth is: Like Dr. King, I am dissatisfied.
“I am dissatisfied that, every day in America, 46 children and teenagers are shot,” Holder continued. “I am dissatisfied that, in our nation’s lowest-income neighborhoods, only 4 percent of black children have a father at home; and that one in five of the black boys born in these neighborhoods end up in our criminal justice system.
Standing in a posh Downtown hall situated in a city that bears the stain of being the nation’s poorest large metro where the black child poverty rate is four times greater than that for white children, Holder touched on the national reality of income inequality:
“I am dissatisfied that economic progress remains uneven, that educational opportunity is far from uniform, and that,” he said, “in the face of these facts, simply acknowledging that ‘black lives matter too’ is controversial.”
Holder threw down a challenge, urging the audience to pick up a cause and preserve the meaning behind the country’s “founding documents.” He also gave props to #TakeEmDown901’s successful effort to force city officials to remove Confederate statues of slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis standing in Downtown parks.
That call to action resonated with Dawn Campbell, 38, a Memphis attorney, who has observed what she describes as a sense of complacency about economic progress and democratic participation.
“We’re complacent in that we have African-Americans doing more things, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be,” said Campbell, who includes access to education and overall advancement in that equation. “There’s definitely a structural breakdown, and we’ve kind of been just OK with it because there’s still been some positive change, some momentum — but the momentum is not where it should be.”
For Susan Hankins, a Memphian, the cause she’s willing to take up is helping young people connect to opportunity.
“The main focus should be on young people being able to get employment and get a better education and to know they are extremely important and that they are the future,” said Hankins, an unemployment compensation specialist at AutoZone.
Entrenched poverty and unemployment gets in the way of advancement, and local young people often lack “a positive mindset and outlook that they can do it,” said Hankins, who believes young people “don’t feel valued.”
Jamia Stokes has an eye on first-generation college students, many of them black. The Rhodes College associate dean of students says they need more support than people think, in the classroom and outside of it.
“People often believe once a student arrives at college they’ve made it,” Stokes said. “With students of color, sometimes it’s hard because they don’t have family members who’ve gone to college” to consult with emotional issues or for encouragement. “I try to be that person for them.”
For Holder, that cause is voting rights. Indeed, passage of Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a concrete success for the civil rights movement, as is the desegregation of schools, accomplished by Brown v Board of Education earlier. Yet, voter suppression efforts have taken root in several states, including Wisconsin’s voter ID law, credited with suppressing 200,000 votes in the 2016 presidential election, according to The Nation and Priorities USA voter suppression memo.
On the upside, 10 states and the District of Columbia have approved automatic voter registration, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, and 15 states have introduced automatic registration proposals this year.
Holder reminded the audience of his work as chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, to ensure citizens to choose their representatives, not the other way around.
“We’re working to ensure that voting maps are drawn fairly — and the integrity of the Voting Rights Act is upheld. We’re working to erase laws that make the casting of a ballot a function of your age, your ethnicity or your party and not your connection to this nation.
Holder continued: “And we need your help.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.