September 28, 2012 10:15:36 AM
OXFORD -- Speaking blocks away from where U.S. marshals battled rioters a half-century ago in an effort to compel the admission of the first black student to the University of Mississippi, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that civil rights enforcement remains a federal priority.
Holder said the Department of Justice continues 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."
The nation's first black attorney general, Holder has a personal tie to the integration of southern universities. 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, as Alabama Gov. George Wallace famously stood at the school's door in protest.
In Mississippi, efforts to enroll James Meredith provoked a night of rioting in 1961, killing two and injuring hundreds. Holder said the injured included more than 160 marshals, who battled integration opponents outside the landmark Lyceum building at Ole Miss.
Holder 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.
"This was never a question of doing what was easy," Holder said. "It was a matter of doing what was right."
Holder's 18-minute speech was part of Ole Miss events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Meredith's entry. Before the speech, University Chancellor Dan Jones made an apology for the school's past actions.
"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 pretty easy thing to do," Jones said.
In talking about present activities, 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 past 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.
Answering a question afterward, Holder said that he wished such pre-approval was no longer necessary, but he said that discrimination is not dead, pointing to a recent federal court decision that concluded Texas lawmakers had unfairly drawn legislative districts to exclude minorities.
"I think it still is something that needs to be there," Holder said. "It is a vital part of our enforcement action."
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, agreed after the speech that preclearance is needed, even if it can be aggravating.
"We still haven't gotten where we need to be," Hood said.
Holder 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.