Remarks of Eric Holder at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles, California on June 2, 2019

Eric H. Holder, Jr.
12 min readDec 2, 2022

Introduction

Thank you, Mayor Garcetti, for that kind introduction. You have been a true leader for Los Angeles and an important voice in our national conversation about building a more inclusive democracy.

Thank you, Rabbi Rosove and the members of the Temple Israel of Hollywood synagogue for honoring me with your first annual Justice Award. It is a great privilege for me to be with all of you today.

Rabbi Rosove, you have led this synagogue for more than three decades with compassion and a steadfast commitment to social justice and education. Your work has touched the lives of so many here in Los Angeles, across our great nation, and around the world.

You have embodied the principle set forth in the book of Isaiah to “Learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Your deep faith has led you to acknowledge the humanity of all people — and the responsibility we all share to treat everyone with love and respect.

Your example is needed now more than ever.

The Crisis

Let me speak frankly to you today.

We are at a moment in the American journey when our institutions — our democratic systems — our values — all are being tested.
The Administration in Washington has let free a plague that we will be dealing with long after its architects and directors have left office.

As has happened before, we are once again at a time in our nation’s history when people of good will need to band together to eradicate hatred and work together to advance the cause of Civil Rights. And to make needed progress we must be honest: racism and anti-Semitism continue to exist in this great nation. The forces of racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism are viruses that always lurk in the body politic…always looking for ways to surface.

We watched in horror as neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville … and were not roundly condemned by the leader of our nation.

A recent study by the Anti-Defamation League found that in 2018 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions occurred at historically high levels– nearly twice as many as in 2015.

We also know that this rise in violence and hatred is not focused on just one people — in recent years, people of diverse faiths, Jews and Muslims in particular, have been brutally attacked. We have seen violence in places of worship. At a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. At Mother Emmanuel in Charleston, South Carolina. At the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and, most recently, not far from here at Chabad Poway.

If we are going to heal our divisions as a nation — if we are going to make real the Constitution’s promise of a more perfect union — then we must be frank about the challenges we still face and where, today, we are as a nation. Progress is built on the foundation of hard truth.

What happens between now and 2020 will help to define who we are as a nation moving forward.

The fact is that — in 2019 — America’s long struggle to overcome injustice, to eliminate disparities, and to eradicate violence directed at certain groups has not yet ended.

Those attitudes thought long gone have found life in the upper reaches of our Executive Branch and in those Congressional leaders who have enabled this Administration. The current occupant of the White House stokes fear and anger through dangerous and inflammatory rhetoric with the result that too many Americans have come to distrust the very things that have always made this nation exceptional: tolerance, compassion and the acceptance of those who are different.

But more than rhetorical damage has occurred — this Administration’s policies have caused real harm. The President has mocked women who have come forward to share their painful stories of sexual assault while his Administration has rolled back protections that were put in place for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses. He has cheered a sitting congressman that physically assaulted a reporter while routinely calling the free press the “enemy of the people.” He has demonized immigrants while his Administration has torn children from the arms of their parents on our southern border and locked them up in crude detention centers.

In the past few years, I have traveled extensively across America and I often hear from people — especially young people — who tell me they feel lost in their own country, unsure of where they belong, and fearful that America’s too long-standing divisions, now energized, are threatening to tear our nation apart.

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

Throughout his life Dr. Martin Luther King was no stranger to such moments. On the eve of his death, he delivered the seminal “Mountaintop” speech that would be his final sermon. Reverend King asked himself when — if given the choice of any period in time — he would choose to be alive. Dr. King asked himself what era he would choose to experience and help shape. His own, he ultimately decided.

“Happiness,” he explained, “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 to demand access to health care. We see them in women of the #MeToo movement who have forced this nation into a long overdue reckoning about sexual harassment and sexual assault. We see them in the examples of those young people — kids really — who in the wake of senseless gun violence — have found their voices in calling for reasonable solutions that prioritize the safety of our communities and the lives of our children.

It is 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.

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 our country, my country, and as grateful as I feel for the progress we’ve made and the opportunities that have been made available to me — the truth is: like Dr. King, I am dissatisfied.

I am dissatisfied that, every day in America, 46 children and teenagers are shot.

I am dissatisfied that economic progress remains uneven, that educational opportunity is far from uniform, and that, in the face of these facts, simply acknowledging that “black lives matter too” is controversial.

I am dissatisfied that I’ve had to have “the talk” with my then teenage son, the conversation that so many black families in America have had in order to protect their children, about how to safely interact with law enforcement.

But as the brother of a retired police officer, and as someone who’s spent his career working hand-in-hand with the women and men in law enforcement, I am also dissatisfied that the unpunished bad actions by a few have sown widespread mistrust for the dedicated, honorable men and women who wear the badge.

I am dissatisfied that too many women; Latinos; Asian Americans; Native Americans; lesbian, gay, and transgender Americans; and people with disabilities still yearn for unrealized equal opportunity and fair treatment.

I am dissatisfied that state legislatures across the country are undertaking a new, direct assault on the reproductive rights of women as part of a grotesque political strategy.

I am dissatisfied that there has been a concerted effort to fill the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary at all levels with reactionary judges, some of whom refuse to even acknowledge today — in 2019 — that Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided.

And I am dissatisfied that, more than half a century after this nation passed 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 — remain under siege.

The poll tax and Jim Crow may be relics of bygone eras, but ballot discrimination and voter disenfranchisement remain real problems today in the United States of America.

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 time of my childhood.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has justifiably been called the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement. It enshrined into law that 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 actually reflect the choices of the American electorate.

Yet, in many communities today our political system is far from fair. There has been a systematic effort to cripple our democracy and disenfranchise those who may not subscribe to certain political views.

It has been manipulated through racial and partisan gerrymandering. Our democracy has been impaired by provably false claims of widespread voter fraud. And it’s been undermined through shameless acts of voter and political suppression.

NDRC and Voting Rights

That’s why two years ago, with the support of President Obama, I helped to launch, and am proud to chair, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. The NDRC is working to make our democracy more representative by ending gerrymandering.

We’re working to build a system where citizens choose their representatives — and dismantle an unjust status quo where politicians are picking their voters.

Here in California, you have an independent, citizen led redistricting commission. You have taken power away from politicians who want to draw maps for their own benefit and given it back to the people where it belongs.

And that is what we want — a fair system. The organization I lead is not designed to gerrymander for Democrats — it is an attempt to ensure a fair process, a fair democracy in which the people are truly respected and fairly represented.

So we are working to ensure that voting maps are drawn fairly — and that the integrity of the Voting Rights Act is upheld. We are working to erase laws that make the casting of a ballot a function of your age, your ethnicity or your party and not your citizenship of this nation.

We have filed lawsuits supporting residents who have had their voting rights infringed in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina. These lawsuits seek to abolish broken electoral systems that prevent people from electing candidates of their choice.

We are supporting a lawsuit to block the Administration from adding a citizenship question to the census because it would dramatically depress the count in areas with significant Latino and immigrant populations. The resultant bad census count is designed to reposition political representation toward areas most likely to elect Republicans when new maps get drawn in 2021.

We have supported reform efforts in five states that will create independent commissions or make the redistricting process less partisan.

Gerrymandering weakens our democracy by making some voters’ ballots more powerful than others. But it also does damage well beyond election day.

When politicians manipulate our electoral maps through partisan or racial gerrymandering, it intensifies polarization, contributes to gridlock, and deepens the cynicism Americans feel about their government.

And by eliminating truly competitive elections, gerrymandering encourages politicians to cater to the extremes of their party and special interests… while ignoring the people they are supposed to represent. It allows them to vote for laws that put the interests of a few before the well-being of all.

It’s not a coincidence that in the states with the most extensive gerrymandering, the legislatures have used that illegitimate power to restrict access to the ballot box through discriminatory voter ID laws.

These attacks on our fundamental rights as citizens make the stakes in our elections over the next two years that much higher. I am bound and determined to make sure that in the midst of an extended campaign for President we do not lose sight of the critical state and local elections that will decide who controls the redistricting process in 2021.

We simply must replace the current occupant of the White House, but that alone is not enough. What happens in state and local races over the next two years will shape, at a minimum, the next decade of our politics.

The Path Forward

We are — politically and as a society — at an existential moment in the history of our nation.

The question before all of us is this: what more can we do — as individuals, and collectively — to make real a vision of racial and social equality? What more can we do to break down the barriers — some long known and others newly created — that have been put in place to undermine our democracy?

Most importantly, how can we heal this divided nation and bring our fellow citizens together in the name of tolerance; non-violence; compassion; love; and justice?

We all have the responsibility — not just the right — the responsibility to take part in our democratic process and shape our society into one that reflects that which is best in us.

This is, as I said, a moment of great challenge and great consequence. Our task is substantial. Our success is not guaranteed. But I remain optimistic.

In some ways, we can look to the past for the way forward.

In the early 20th Century, a small group of Jews and African Americans joined together to form the NAACP, one of the most powerful forces for positive change in our nation’s history.

During the Civil Rights era, Jews and African Americans again joined together to march and to protest and to fight for changes to our laws that would abolish a system of American apartheid.

In 1958, when speaking to the American Jewish Congress, Dr. King said, “Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”

In 1964, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, three black and Jewish civil rights foot soldiers, had their lives taken from them in Mississippi because they were registering people to vote.

Today, we must resist those who would try to tear asunder the historic Jewish/black alliance and strengthen our historical bond so that we can continue the fight — and lead the struggle — that has meant so much for equality for both groups and must now encompass others.

That is what this time, our time, calls for — we will write the next great chapter of America’s story, but only if we come together.

We must embrace — indeed celebrate — the diversity that is America. We must ensure that people of all faiths, races, ethnicities and sexual orientations are treated with dignity and respect and given real opportunities to fully develop their talents.

The change we seek is possible. But that change is not promised.

So, today, let us not merely reflect upon our past. Let us pledge our best efforts to protect the advances we’ve inherited, make real the legacy that’s been entrusted to each of us and ensure a more just future for the next generation.

It is our time to combat the forces that seek to divide us with rhetoric and policies that are frightening — but historically familiar to blacks and Jews.

We cannot wallow in despair. From our learned history we know that we do not have the luxury of apathy or disengagement. In the great tradition of our forebears, we must fight, we must struggle, to protect and to improve this democracy.

There has been an awakening of American engagement and citizenship over the past two and a half years, but we can’t allow this to only be a moment, it must become a sustained movement. It is time again for this nation to seek a new birth of freedom and of equality.

That is our charge. As easy as it might be, 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 again.

So now is a time for strength and resolve. We must use our combined voices and the tools of political involvement and peaceful protest that have always been the hallmark of progress in this country. We must continue marching. We must continue striving. And we must use our power at the voting booth to send a message around all of America about what kind of country we must become once again.

We must do the difficult things: embrace the uncertainties of the future and then shape that future in the way that truly great American generations always have. We must not give in to irrational fear and manufactured division but instead embrace needed trust and national unity.

So let us rise to the challenges of our time. And 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 nation, continues to guide our path.

May God continue to bless this Temple and all of its people. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.

Thank you.

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Eric H. Holder, Jr.

82nd Attorney General of the United States. Chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.