Eric Holder Reflects on the State of American Democracy in Speech Commemorating MLK Day

January 12, 2024

Washington, D.C. – Today, Eric H. Holder, Jr., the 82nd Attorney General of the United States and Chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), delivered remarks at the United Planning Organization (UPO) 40th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast. 

In the speech, Attorney General Holder reflected on the state of America’s democracy today and called on the audience to not be complacent in this moment. Under Attorney General Holder’s leadership, the NDRC’s 501(c)(3) affiliate, the National Redistricting Foundation (NRF), provided financial support and directed the litigation strategy for the Caster plaintiffs in Allen v. Milligan, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that protected Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and ultimately resulted in a federal district court adopting a more representative and fair map for Alabama. As a result of the court-adopted map, Alabama could have two Black Members of Congress representing the state simultaneously for the first time in history. 

Also as a result of Allen v. Milligan, the Louisiana Legislature is set to convene for a special session starting on January 15 to redraw the state’s discriminatory congressional map, which a federal appeals court ruled to be a likely violation of Section 2 of the VRA. In 2022, the NRF initiated Robinson v. Ardoin, the lawsuit challenging Louisiana’s congressional map for violating Section 2 of the VRA. 

The full speech, as prepared for delivery, is below:

The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.
82nd Attorney General of the United States

United Planning Organization (UPO) 40th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast

Remarks As Prepared For Delivery
Friday, January 12, 2024

It is a privilege to be with you all this morning, with so many distinguished community leaders, elected officials, committed activists and future leaders. 

Today we gather to commemorate the birth of a man taken too soon from us. It is hard to think about his birth ninety five years ago without remembering also his untimely death and the work that was left undone. We still feel that deepest of wounds—the passing of a man but not the death of a dream—the senseless murder of our nation’s most committed, most courageous, and most consequential “drum major for justice”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But, on this more joyous day, we must again commit ourselves to making real the dream that animated his too short life.  

The anniversaries of Dr. King’s birth and death have provided important opportunities, not only to celebrate and reflect upon his extraordinary life, but to consider where we are now as a nation; to take stock of our progress; to take responsibility for the work that remains before us; and to rededicate ourselves to the dream—of racial, social, and economic justice—that is Dr. King’s living legacy. 

But let us also confront the truth about him.  Hard truth is the foundation for real, lasting, positive change. In his life Dr. King forced America to face what he termed the three evils:  racism, poverty and war. Though revered now, that singular focus on those evils ultimately made him an unpopular figure. By 1966 a Gallup poll found that almost two thirds of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Dr. King. As he emphasized his opposition to war and spread the focus of his work outside the south, he became a threatening, polarizing and disliked figure.

I wish that Dr. King could be here with us today so that he could see how the new country that he helped to create has improved so much. I wish he could see how the system of American apartheid he fought against has been legally dismantled. I wish he could see how people of all races treasure the memorial in his honor that stands on our National Mall.

Above all, though, I wish he could see how effectively concerned women, LGBTQ Americans, those in still distressed minority communities have copied Dr. King’s tactics; and how, in acts of King inspired nonviolent protest, they have launched their own movements—calling for, and marching for, fairness, opportunity, and justice. 

Despite the extraordinary progress that has shaped the last five decades and transformed our entire society, we are still marching. We are still striving. And we are still calling on our nation’s leaders to act—not in a manner that is inconsistent with what is best in us—but more with a sense of justice, compassion and common humanity. 

Because the unfortunate fact is that—in 2024—America’s long struggle to overcome injustice, to eliminate disparities, and to eradicate violence has not yet ended. And the age of bullies and bigots is not fully behind us. Bull Connor and Jim Clark are gone but parts of their legacy endure.

This is, indeed, a time of challenge and consequence.

But Dr. King was no stranger to such moments.

Throughout his life and—most famously—on the eve of his death, as he delivered the seminal “Mountaintop” speech that would be his final sermon, Dr. King stated “Happiness comes from embracing the blessings and burdens of destiny” and the opportunities that arise in difficult times.

“Only when it is dark enough,” Dr. King said, “can you see the stars.” 

Today, once again, it is dark enough.

We have not yet reached the Promised Land. But today, once more, we can see the stars.

We see them in the courage and commitment of ordinary people nationwide—Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds—who refuse to give in to fear and frustration; who resist shameful attempts to exploit and divide the American people; and who are keeping up the fight for the safety and civil rights of all. 

We see them in people who take to the streets and to the offices of their elected leaders.  

We see them in the examples of those who are no longer satisfied with mere “progress” but want to reach the end states of justice and equality. 

It is in times like these when the power of Dr. King’s example—and his enduring words—are brought into stark focus. And one of the most important lessons he left is that it is necessary to be indignant and to be impatient so that it impels us to take action. That is what animates his Letter from Birmingham Jail—impatience.  

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 the Civil Rights Movement and the opportunities it made available to me—the truth is, like Dr. King, I am dissatisfied.

I am dissatisfied that poverty still exists in America and in the nation’s capital. I am dissatisfied that our nation is filled with weapons of war. I am dissatisfied that economic progress remains uneven. I am dissatisfied that educational opportunities are not made available to all and I am dissatisfied that merely acknowledging that black lives also matter is somehow controversial. And I am especially dissatisfied that more than half a century after Dr. King helped to pass the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, for too many Americans, the right to vote—and the assurance that one’s vote is counted fairly—remains under siege.

To me, this is the chief civil rights issue of our time. And in that regard our nation is not as different as it should be from the America that existed during the life of Dr. King. The Selma march was about the right to vote. The deaths of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 was about the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has justifiably been called the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement.

So much of Dr. King’s work was to ensure the right to vote. As he so often pointed out, in this great country, the ability of all eligible citizens to participate in—and to have an equal voice in—the work and direction of government is not a privilege. It is a right. The ability to vote is not a privilege—it is a right. And as Lyndon Johnson said “the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.”

Our nation’s policies are determined by those who serve in elected office. And we must make certain that these representatives accurately reflect the political desires of the American electorate.

Yet, in many communities today, our political system is far from fair. It’s been undermined by spurious and outright false claims of widespread voter fraud and by acts of voter suppression and the harmful purging of voter rolls. And it’s been rigged by racial and partisan gerrymandering.

It is time for each of us to ask, as Dr. King so famously did: “Where Do We Go From Here?”

What more can we do—as individuals, and as a society—to help realize Dr. King’s vision of racial and social equality?  Each of us must ask ourselves, “what am I doing?”

How can we lift up the values that were at the heart of his sermons, the root of his actions, the core of his character and the center of his life?

Most importantly, how can we heal this divided nation—as he sought to do—and bring our fellow citizens together in the name of tolerance; non-violence; compassion; love; and—above all—justice?

It is only by coming together that we can write the next great chapter of America’s story. Dr. King is often quoted as saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” That is true—but only because caring, committed people put their hands on that arc and pull it towards justice. And so it must be again.

So, today, let us not merely reflect upon our past. Let’s pledge our best efforts to protect the advances we’ve inherited—and make real the legacy that’s been entrusted to each of us by the great man we celebrate today. 

That is our charge. And this is our moment. As easy as it is we must not look back toward a past that was comforting to too few and unjust to too many. That is not how to make America great.  In order to make America truly great we must do the difficult things: embrace the uncertainties of the future and then shape that future in the way that the great American generations always have. We must not give in to irrational fear and manufactured division but instead embrace needed trust and national unity. Do not gather once a year and make Dr. King a vision from the past; embrace his work, his vision and make him a living guide to a better future. Never forget that positive change is not promised; it comes about only as a direct result of commitment, action, sacrifice, endurance and adherence to the values we must all hold dear. As Dr. King said, “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”

So let us rise to the challenges of our time. Let us work to protect the right to vote. And, in the spirit of Dr. King, let us signal to the world that—in America today—the pursuit of a more perfect union lives on, the march toward the Promised Land goes on, and the belief, not only that we shall overcome, but that we will truly come together as one truly free and just nation, continues to push us forward.

Thank you.