Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was getting ready to give a speech at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin when he glanced up at a giant video screen where old photographs of Johnson were being displayed. He was taken aback by what he saw.
In an image that captured the historic day the president signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a young woman was standing nearby whose face Holder recognized immediately: his late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, one of two young students who had walked past Gov. George Wallace in 1963 to integrate the University of Alabama.
The first African American attorney general hadn’t known that Malone was with the president when he signed the Voting Rights Act, which would become the cornerstone of modern civil rights law. That emotional day for Holder two years ago, aides say, was a pivotal moment in deepening his already strong commitment to the body of law that protects minority rights.
That commitment has driven a series of recent decisions by the attorney general, including his denunciation of “stand your ground” laws in Florida and about 30 other states, as well as the Justice Department’s move to intervene last week in a redistricting case in which officials say Texas is threatening to marginalize minority voters. Holder has made it clear that the defense of civil rights will be the centerpiece of the remainder of his term — and, he hopes, his legacy.
“The attorney general’s plate is full of every kind of legal issue that is presented involving the United States,” said Columbia Law School professor Ted Shaw, a longtime friend of Holder’s. “But enforcing the civil rights laws is near and dear to his heart. And it has been for a long time.”