Attorney General Eric Holder called on Congress and the American people to not only celebrate civil rights successes but also renew the spirit of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by working to "eradicate" inequality.
"Like all who are old enough to remember those days, I will never forget the turmoil and violence that characterized the Civil Rights era," Holder told a crowd of civil rights advocates, cabinet officials and students during an event at Howard University celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. "I am especially mindful that without the Civil Rights Act or the monumental progress that followed few of us would be here. I would not stand before you as attorney general of the United States."
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Lyndon Johnson shortly after John F. Kennedy's assassination, outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It put a stop to segregation in schools and workplaces and also helped to end discrimination against black voters.
Holder has made protection of civil rights "one of the highest priorities of the Department of Justice", Howard University President Wayne Frederick told the crowd, and Holder attributed the Civil Rights Act's passage to protesters of "tremendous courage and unwavering faith" who marched in Birmingham and Washington to end racial injustice.
"As the battle of civil rights raged in the halls of Congress, inch by inch the nation as a whole moved slowly towards equality," he said.
But, he added, there is a great deal more to do.
Pointing to modern-day instances of inequality, including the pay gap between men and women and longer average prison sentences for African-Americans, Holder called for more collective engagement to "talk frankly about inequality and examine its causes and its impacts."
To applause, he then demanded that Congress support fair housing and equal pay laws, end discrimination against LGBT citizens, and pass updated voting rights legislation. Holder has been a strong critic of voter ID laws, which he described as the new "barriers to the ballot box" in a history of racial voting discrimination, and he recently suggested that the Justice Department will join two lawsuits against Republican-backed voting restrictions in Wisconsin and Ohio.
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Holder's remarks come just days after he inspired controversy through comments he made on ABC's "This Week." In talking about racism in politics, Holder, the first African-American to serve as U.S. Attorney General, concluded on the show, "There's a certain level of vehemence, it seems to me, that's directed at me and directed at the president."
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, fired back at Holder Monday on Fox News, saying that blaming opposition to the president "on some sort of racial animus" is not going to help in the fight against racism and isn't "constructive."