At UChicago event, Holder asks: What are we doing to advance Rev. King’s dream?

Former attorney general says country must come together to overcome injustice

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said he wishes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive to see that the system of American apartheid he fought against has been legally dismantled.

“Legally,” he repeated, making it clear that there is much still to be done today.

He also wishes that Rev. King, who blazed a trail in his 39 years as a civil rights leader, could see how women, LGBTQ people, people of color, young people victimized by gun violence and others are demanding justice and peacefully marching for fairness. 

“We are still marching,” Holder said at the University of Chicago’s commemoration celebration for King, held at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on Jan. 23. “We are still striving. We’re still calling on our nation’s leaders to act with a sense of justice, compassion and common humanity.”

The long struggle to overcome injustice and disparities continues. “The age of bullies and bigots is not fully behind us,” he said. The legacy of intolerance of ardent segregationists like Bull Connor and others endures, he said.

Holder recalled the devastation of King’s assassination, and how that loss still cuts today.

“We still feel that deepest of wounds, the passing of a man — but not the death of a dream — the vicious murder of our nation’s most committed, most courageous and most consequential drum major for justice,” he said.

Holder, the first African American to serve as U.S. attorney general, said that as we mark what would have been King’s 94th birthday and mourn his death, “We must also commit ourselves to making real the dream that animated his too-short life.”

Holder said that mass shootings, racial and social inequities and police killings challenge our modern society. And, several decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the ability to vote remains under siege, Holder said, calling it the “chief civil rights issue of our time.” 

“The ability to vote is not a privilege. It is a right,” he said. 

To honor King, everyone must ask themselves what they are doing to help lift up his values and heal our divisions by bringing our fellow citizens together in the name of tolerance, non-violence, justice and compassion, Holder said. Ask yourself: “What am I doing?” he challenged attendees. 

“It is only by coming together that we can write the next great chapter of America’s story,” he said.

Committing to King’s mission

In his opening remarks, UChicago President Paul Alivisatos said King’s words still ring true today. “Through his words and through his works, he called countless people to action.”

Alivisatos also noted that the challenges of that era have shifted today, but King’s call to action remains vital and we must commit ourselves to his mission.

Alivisatos also honored the recipients of the University's Diversity Leadership Awards: Prof. Monica E. Peek; alumni Bea Young, AB’60, MAT’64, and Rick Palmore, JD’77; staff member Tracye A. Matthews; graduate student Lizeth Tamayo and College student Tyler Okeke.

In a conversation with University Trustee and Obama Foundation CEO Valerie Jarrett, Holder talked about the many issues that crossed his desk as attorney general, including pattern and practice investigations, voting rights and same-sex marriage.

Laws being passed today that restrict people’s ability to vote by mail and to require certain IDs to vote are disproportionately affecting communities of color and young people, he said.

“There is no problem of widespread voter fraud in this country,” he said, adding that a study found that a person is more likely to be hit by a bolt of lightning than to cast a fraudulent ballot.

These “anti-democracy measures” are designed to prevent certain people from being able to vote, he said, and have nothing to do with preventing voter fraud.

Jarrett asked Holder about the challenges and toxicity of the current political climate that young people are facing. “Why should they be hopeful?” she wondered.

Holder noted that every generation has been called upon to defend democracy, and, so far, every generation has been successful. This generation also must persevere and prevail, he said.

“Understand something: Our democracy is under attack. … There are factions in this country … who want to take this nation to places where it has never been before, who would sacrifice our democracy for the retention of power.”

This generation must answer the clarion call to defend our democracy, Holder said.

This year’s celebration, which included remarks from second-year undergraduate student Orion Douglas and law student Sydney Chapman, also featured performances by Uniting Voices Chicago.