Holder says civil rights remains federal priority

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

OXFORD — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says preserving civil rights remains a U.S. Justice Department priority.

Speaking Thursday at the University of Mississippi, the nation’s first black attorney general highlighted federal efforts to enforce such laws. The speech is part of the university’s events honoring the 50th anniversary of the Justice Department forcing it to admit its first black student, James Meredith.

Integration was greeted by rioting that killed two and injured hundreds, including what Holder says were more than 160 marshals.

In prepared remarks, Holder said he and other Justice Department employees continue 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.”

He highlighted the role of marshals and other Justice Department officials in the Ole Miss case, all the way up to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Federal officials tried to negotiate a peaceful enrollment for Meredith with Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, only to be greeted by violence. President John F. Kennedy took over units of the Mississippi National Guard and then deployed regular U.S. Army troops to keep the peace and make sure Meredith stayed in class until he graduated 10 months later.

The attorney general mentioned his own personal connection to integration. He is married to Dr. Sharon Malone, who is the sister of the late Vivian Malone, one of the first two students to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963. That event prompted another state-federal showdown, where Alabama Gov. George Wallace famously stood at the school’s door in protest.

Holder only obliquely referred to Justice Department opposition to voter identification laws. Mississippi is asking Holder’s department to approve such a law under the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal approval for voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. State officials expect the law to be rejected, in part because of Holder’s public opposition as well as the Justice Department’s rejection of laws in South Carolina and Texas.

“We’ve 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,” Holder said.

He also highlighted the prosecution of hate crimes, including the guilty pleas of three white Mississippi men who ran over James Craig Anderson, a black man, in Jackson in 2009. Sentencing for the defendants was delayed earlier this week after prosecutors said they were continuing to provide information in an investigation.

Holder also mentioned renewed efforts to push school desegregation. For example, the department has renewed efforts to impose a new integration plan in Cleveland, Miss., saying the district still operates identifiably white and black schools.

However, the attorney general also called on students in the audience to continue the push for fuller integration and equal opportunity.

“So this evening — as we observe this milestone, and honor the contributions of those who made it possible — let us also pledge our own commitment to continuing the work that remains unfinished,” he said.