TO HISTORIANS AND authors of official documents the tall, legal luminary was the 82nd attorney general of the US.
But to millions of average Americans and to the political and human rights elite, national commentators and to college and university professors around the country, Eric Holder is number one, the living embodiment of determination when it comes to fighting for the rule of law and human and civil rights in America, not to mention environmental justice.
But that glowing assessment wasn’t simply grounded in the fact that the son of Barbadian soil was the first person of colour to lead the sprawling US Justice Department. Instead, his iconic status can be traced to an outstanding record of public service as a senior judge, leading federal prosecutor in Washington D.C, deputy US attorney general, and later to his seven years as America’s AG.
That high national standing was evident on a recent evening in Manhattan where Holder was presented with the prestigious Dr Phyllis Harrison-Ross Public Service Award, given every two years to a person with an impeccable track record for fighting for what’s decent and right in America.
Speaker after speaker lauded Holder in the elegant surroundings of the New York Society for Ethical Culture.
“He was simply outstanding,” David Dinkins, the only black person elected mayor of New York City, and the first recipient of the award, was overheard saying after the presentation.
“An unparalleled passionate vocal leader on people’s rights,” asserted Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a pre-eminent legal body. More than 60 years ago her organisation encouraged the US Supreme Court to outlaw the racist Jim Crow system of “separate but equal” public facilities, especially in schools.
He “is a man of tremendous integrity,” Ifill said.
Interestingly, Ifill, a national legal figure, told the 250 guests that she shared some important things in common with Holder, and at the top of her list was the fact that the roots of their separate families were in Barbados. Her grandparents, she added, were “Bajans” whose thirst for education knew no limits.
US Congressman Charles Rangel, now in his final term in the US House of Representatives where he has served since the 1970s, hailed Holder for being an exemplary champion of people’s rights, especially their voting and other constitutional rights.
Zachery Carter, a former top federal prosecutor in New York who is now New York City’s chief legal officer, insisted that Americans “owed” Holder “an extraordinary debt of gratitude” for, among other things, his persistence in reducing the terrible impact of “mass incarceration” on families, especially black Americans.
Dr Jeffrey Sachs, a global economic scholar and authority on the environment, praised the Bajan-New Yorker for his significant contribution to the ongoing “struggle for social justice,” especially “environmental justice.”
The Columbia University professor described Holder as being “central” to the never-ending legal struggle to protect the global environment.
When the time came for Holder to respond, he quickly invoked the memory of his late father, Eric Holder Sr., who left Barbados when he was a young man and later with his wife, Miriam, also a Bajan, raised their two sons in Queens. He said that although his father didn’t complete high school, he was “the wisest man I ever met.”
His father’s profound influence left him with no choice but to enter public service while striving to be the best he could be.
Holder said he was optimistic about America’s future, saying the country would continue to move forward and would be an even better place in the next 50 years, with rights as light on the path of progress.
The Public Service Award is named for Dr Harrison Ross, a prominent psychiatrist, who called Holder a “champion” of change. Also honoured was US Senator Kristen Gillibrand, a Democrat of New York.
When a Bajan exchanged greetings with Holder after the ceremony, the former AG told him: “I love that (Barbadian) accent.”
Tony Best is the NATION’s North American Correspondent. Email: Bestra@aol.com