Recalling a time and place where racism was not only routine but official policy, Attorney General Eric Holder commemorated a half-century of integration at the University of Mississippi on Thursday, promising that the courage and dedication of those who broke down barriers decades ago would continue to inspire the people of the Department of Justice.
“Tonight, the preservation of this progress – and the continuation of this critical work – constitutes a charge that has been entrusted to each of us, and a promise that tomorrow’s leaders must strive to fulfill,” Holder said in a speech at the University of Mississippi, the formerly lily-white “Ole Miss” where his presence as a black man and the nation’s top law enforcer would once have been inconceivable.
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Holder said the example of James Meredith, whose enrollment 50 years ago this fall integrated the university, and others on the civil rights barricades is “the driving force that animates my efforts – and those of my colleagues at every level of our nation’s Justice Department – to strive for equal justice under law, and to be both rigorous and fair in our enforcement of the essential civil rights protections that so many have fought, and even died, to secure.”
In a visit that in some ways was deeply personal, Holder recalled how far the Magnolia State has come, and how far the old Confederacy, and indeed the entire nation, have to go. In a question-answer session after his speech, according to an Associated Press account, he said provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring states with histories of discrimination to get pre-clearance before changing voting procedures remain “a vital part” of DOJ enforcement efforts.
In his address, Holder said the department has “moved aggressively to enforce and to defend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a signature achievement of the Civil Rights Movement, a safeguard against those who would erode the ability of certain populations to participate in the work of self-governance, and a powerful tool for preventing discrimination and disenfranchisement in our elections.” After his speech, he referred only obliquely to voter-identification laws being contested by the DOJ, according to the AP.
The events of 50 years ago, Holder said in his speech, were not so much a turning point “but an inflection point.” It was a moment, he said, when “passionate, patriotic Americans…driven by a hunger for equality, an abiding faith in the promise of our justice system, and a steadfast belief in the power of America’s founding ideals” heeded the words of Martin Luther King Jr., saw “’the arc of the moral universe’ – and bent it, as he might say, just a little further toward justice.”
Meredith’s enrollment, accomplished with the aid of federal officials and law enforcement agents and accompanied by rioting that killed two people and injured many others, “was never a question of doing what was easy,” Holder said. “It was a matter of doing what was right.”
Meredith’s allies included lawyers from the NAACP, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and John Doar, former head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division who just this year was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On a personal note, Holder recalled another pioneer, Vivian Malone, who defied Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama and enrolled at that state’s university. Holder is married to Dr. Sharon Malone, sister of Vivian.
“And, as I recently learned – in a poignant letter that’s now housed here in the Ole Miss archives – James Meredith would reach out to Vivian – as a peer, and as one of the few people in America who understood what she must have been going through – to offer his personal support and encouragement,” Holder said. (Vivian Malone died in 2005.)
While the University of Mississippi is celebrating a half-century of integration, Chancellor Dan Jones found it necessary to apologize for the past. “I believe there are still people living today who are victims of injustice in our state, some of them perpetuated by our university, and find in my life that an apology is a pretty easy thing to do,” Jones said a day before Holder’s appearance. And an Ole Miss history professor, Charles Eagles, said the celebration smacks of an attempt to gloss over an ugly past by ignoring inconvenient truths like slavery and segregation.
Holder, who was 11 years old in the fall of 1962, recalled how much lay ahead after Meredith’s ground-breaking achievement. “Ahead lay Dr. King’s vision of the Mountaintop, and the realization of parts of the dream that so many would never live to see. Ahead lay years of struggle, immeasurable loss, and tremendous sorrow.”
Among those who perished in the cause, besides Martin Luther King, were Medgar Evers, an NAACP activist assassinated in Mississippi in 1963, and three young civil rights workers, murdered by Ku Klux Klan members in 1964 after being handed over to them by Mississippi lawmen.
George Wallace and his fellow segregationist, Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi, are gone. So is “Colonel Rebel,” the Ole Miss mascot who roamed the sidelines in Confederate gray to inspire the football faithful.
Things have changed so much at Ole Miss that Holder was able to refer to it as “this remarkable institution” and note “so many remarkable, once-unimaginable steps that our nation has since taken in its ongoing journey – toward equal rights and equal opportunity – along a path that still stretches beyond the horizon.”