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Former Attorney General Eric Holder continues the fight for voting rights


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Eric Holder, became the first African American attorney general in 2009 when he was appointed by the first African American president, Barack Obama. One of Holder's priorities as AG was voting rights. But during his tenure, in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the case Shelby County v. Holder. Shelby County, Ala., had challenged the provision of the Voting Rights Act that required preclearance, which meant states, like Alabama, with a history of discriminating against Black voters needed to receive clearance from the Justice Department before enacting any new voting laws. The Shelby decision, striking down that provision, opened the door to a slew of voting restrictions.

After Holder stepped down as attorney general in 2015, voting rights and election fairness remained a top priority. He founded the National Democratic Redistricting Committee with the goal of reforming how state legislative maps are drawn to ensure they're fair, not partisan, and ending the practice of gerrymandering.

In his new book, Holder asks what he describes as an existential question - how do we save democracy before it's too late? The book, co-written with Sam Koppelman, is called "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote."

Eric Holder, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start in a similar way your book does. Take us back to when you were - I think you were 12 - watching reports on the march on Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the march for voting rights in which people, including John Lewis, were beaten by the police.

ERIC HOLDER: Yeah, it was in 1963. I was 12 years old. I was in my basement of my small house in Queens looking at a black-and-white television and witnessing what happened as marchers tried to go across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was something that was broadcast really, you know, around the nation. But it really struck me, living in Queens, living in the North, that largely African American citizens - then called Negroes - were trying to cross a bridge for voting rights and were having their heads bashed in by - it appeared to be policemen - you know, I found out later on they were state troopers. And it left a big impression on me.

And I remember my parents explaining to me, you know, what had happened, what these people were fighting for - and again, something that I assumed everybody had the right to do. I mean, I went to the polls all the time with my parents in Queens. It was something they embedded in me, this notion of if you have the opportunity to vote, that you're supposed to do that. And then I was witnessing, in our same country, you know, I don't know - I didn't know how far away at that point in my life, that people who look like me were being denied that opportunity to cast a ballot.

GROSS: Voting rights became a priority for you as attorney general. How did that become a priority?

HOLDER: Well, you know, I like to think of myself as a child of the '60s. And, you know, I remember what I've just described - you know, the '65 incident at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I remember before that - again, on that black-and-white TV - seeing, in 1963, as my future sister-in-law was denied the opportunity to enroll at the University of Alabama when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. Those left impressions on me.

The '60s was also a time for African countries asserting their independence. Both of my parents come from Barbados. Barbados declared its independence in 1966. The civil rights movement was in flower. And all of those things left in me an impression that there was the need for progress, that old ways of doing things had to be done away with, and that I wanted to be a part of that.

GROSS: While you were attorney general, there was the now famous case, Shelby v. Holder, where Shelby, Ala., challenged the constitutionality of part of the Voting Rights Act. So just to refresh people's memories, explain what that case was about.

HOLDER: Yeah. The Shelby County v. Holder case arose in 2013. Shelby County, Ala., filed a lawsuit that essentially challenged what's called the coverage formula in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which has legitimately been called the pearl of the civil rights movement. There is a coverage formula within the act that sets out the basis by which certain jurisdictions are covered. And if they are covered, then they have to - if they want to make changes in their voting procedures, they had to go to the Justice Department to get something that's called preclearance. People in the Justice Department, in the Civil Rights Division, would look at the proposed change and, if it didn't impinge on the rights of the citizens in the jurisdiction, would preclear it - approve it. If there were problems, we tried to work them out. If it couldn't be worked out, then the Justice Department had the ability to file a lawsuit.

The folks in Shelby County challenged whether or not that formula was still valid. It had been put together in 1965. This is now 2013. And the Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, sided with Shelby County and said that the coverage formula was not historically correct and that, therefore, the ability of the Justice Department to preclear that which Shelby County wanted to do was unconstitutional.

The problem with the Supreme Court ruling - Chief Justice Roberts very famously said in the majority opinion that America has changed, which was definitely true. The America of 2013 was fundamentally different and better than the America in 1965. But America had not come far enough. And as a result of that decision, we saw, very quickly, states that previously had been covered by the act putting into place a number of voter suppression mechanisms and techniques. As then-Justice Ginsburg, I think, presciently said - and I'm paraphrasing here a bit - she said, you know, if you have an umbrella over your head in a thunderstorm and you're not getting wet, that doesn't mean that you remove the umbrella and still think that you won't get wet. And so that was her way of saying America has changed. But if you remove the protections of the Voting Rights Act, America and the people in those covered jurisdictions are going to get wet yet again with inappropriate and prejudiced voting mechanisms.

GROSS: So before the Shelby case, the Justice Department had to give clearance to any new restrictions in places that were historically prejudiced against certain voters, like Black voters. And the Roberts decision basically said, hey, that's in the past. Things have changed. Why hold the past against places like Shelby County, Ala.?

HOLDER: That's basically right. I mean, yeah, the covered jurisdictions were largely the states that were part of the Confederacy, although there were some covered jurisdictions. Actually - people find this kind of, you know, hard to believe - parts of New York - New York state - were covered, as well. But they were largely Southern states that had been a part of the Confederacy.

GROSS: So let's take this to the really practical level. What is something that your Justice Department was able to do to uphold voting rights under the Voting Rights Act that you were no longer able to do under the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court decision striking down key parts of the act?

HOLDER: Well, we filed a suit in Texas, where Texas tried to impose a photo ID regimen that required everybody who wanted to vote to possess this state-issued photo ID. And we were able to show that this had a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color who didn't have access to photo ID, didn't own cars to the same degree that their white counterparts did. If they didn't possess a photo ID, they could go to a place and get one issued to them. But in order to do so, you had to have backup materials - birth certificates, things of that nature. And what Texas says - we'll make that available to you. But in order to do it, you have to pay $22. And what we said was, that's almost like a poll tax. You're going to make people who don't just have photo ID - perhaps they don't possess a driver's license - you're going to make them pay $22 to come up with a way in which they can obtain that photo ID. And judges in Texas had - at the trial court level - had said that the position of the Justice Department was, in fact, one that was justified.

GROSS: And you were able to do that because of the Voting Rights Act.

HOLDER: Yeah. Texas had - was a covered jurisdiction. And the changes that they wanted to make in their voting procedures was something that we could examine under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

GROSS: What was your role in arguing the case in the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder? Your name is on the case 'cause you were the head of the Justice Department. So what did it mean to have your name on the case, and what role did you actually play in the case itself?

HOLDER: Yeah. The case was argued by our very able solicitor general, Don Verrilli. And as he prepared the briefs and actually went to the oral argument, he said, Eric, I actually think that we're going have a problem here, that the court may rule with Shelby County. And I thought, well, this is a litigator speaking to me - you know, a person who's looking at all the possible negatives - because I thought, given the record that Congress had put together, the thousands of pages of testimony, thousands of pages of documents, near-unanimous approval of reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - given that record that the Supreme Court was dealing with, I simply didn't think that the court would, in essence, go against the findings or the virtually unanimous approval of Congress in reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the signing - the re-signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by President George W. Bush. I didn't expect the court to, in essence, take a contrary position. But Don Verrilli - again, our solicitor general - thought that that was indeed possible. I was maybe a little surprised by the court's ruling. I was certainly chagrined by the court's ruling. But it was one that, as I said, the solicitor general thought was, if not probable, extremely, extremely possible.

GROSS: Is there anything in retrospect you would have done differently?

HOLDER: I don't think so. I mean, I think that this is one of those cases where the case was argued well. The factual record was good. Legal precedent was on our side. I simply think that the court got it wrong. It was a 5-4 decision. And I think, you know, you get 50 years down the road, maybe shorter than that, the Shelby County v. Holder decision will be seen as one of the worst decisions of a United States Supreme Court, given the lack of coherence, I think, in the opinion, the way in which it dealt with the congressional findings and then the aftermath of the opinion that led to widespread voter-suppression efforts across the country.

I mean, if you look since Shelby, we've had about 1,800 polling places that have closed that would not have been closed - that would have been opposed by the Justice Department - but nevertheless close, and predominantly in those covered jurisdictions. We've seen voting purging of voter rolls that have occurred, again, disproportionately in covered jurisdictions. There's a whole range of anti-voter measures that have been taken, and particularly in those states that had been covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that would not have occurred had the court's decision gone in a different direction.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Holder, who was attorney general under President Obama. His new book is called "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Eric Holder, who served as attorney general under President Obama. He's written a new book called "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote."

So you were very firm in your opinion that Shelby County v. Holder was settled in an unjust way. You really disapprove of the Supreme Court's decision and of Chief Justice Roberts' majority opinion. How does it feel to have this case that makes you so angry - have your name attached to it? It will forever be Shelby County v. Holder - you.

HOLDER: Yeah. That's actually an interesting question. And I smiled a little bit because those who are near and dear to me, those who work with me, always refer to the case as the Shelby County case. They know that...

GROSS: (Laughter) They leave your name off.

HOLDER: ...There is a part of me that does not want my name - not a part - there is - my entirety does not want to be in any way associated with that case. It's almost as if, you know - like Dred Scott v. Holder or something like that. I mean, it's an odious case. And it is not something that I want to ever be connected to except for people to know it's something that I think was wrongly decided and had an extremely negative impact on our democracy. But I never refer to the case in Shelby County v. Holder. It is only the Shelby County case.

GROSS: You said that you were chagrined by the Supreme Court's decision. In your book, you say this decision made you angry, angrier than you ever were as attorney general. Are there - like, what are the best channels of appropriately addressing your anger when you were attorney general? And did you ever worry that if you expressed too much anger, you would be portrayed as an angry Black man?

HOLDER: Yeah. Well, I mean, what I tried to do was channel the anger that I felt immediately by calling to the Justice Department the next day, the heads of all of the major civil rights organizations to the conference room on the fifth floor of the Justice Department and in essence, say, I disagree with the opinion that the court has rendered. There are still parts of the Voting Rights Act that are intact, and we will continue to use those intact provisions of the act to do all that we can to protect the voting rights of all Americans. And we, I think, did as good a job as we could, given the way in which the court left the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in tatters.

Now, I - and you raise another point, though. I - you know, I think as mad as I was - I think pissed off is the way I might have described it, you know, if I were being - you know, being totally truthful. I had to always measure the way in which I responded, both because I was the attorney general of the United States and then, as you say, did not want to be portrayed as an emotional and angry Black man. That is a component of who I am that I have to or had to deal with in my official capacity. And so it might have come off - my anger might have come off as more measured than it actually was.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit more about that concern about being portrayed as, like, an angry Black man? Like, what does that mean? And why do people in power who are Black sometimes have to not show their anger because of that racist way of being depicted?

HOLDER: Yeah. Because if you demonstrate your anger, you can be dismissed. Well, yeah, he's mad because he's Black, and this affects Black people, and he's reacting as a Black person. And so what you try to do is you couch the anger that you feel in logic, in measured tones, to try to make sure that your listener understands that you're coming from a logical, neutral place. It's part of, you know, who we are as Americans.

We have never really dealt with, I think, in an appropriate way, the question of race, the question of inherent, implicit bias. But it's something that as a Black man, I've had to learn to deal with and then try to navigate. And so, you know, if you were in the fifth floor of the Justice Department with me and you're part of my staff, you would have seen, you know, the real feelings that Eric Holder was feeling on that day if you'd seen me in the conference room when the cameras were there. You would have seen a much - person speaking in much more measured tones, but trying to convey as best I could in those measured tones, the depths of my anger.

GROSS: You write that your silent protest against the court's decision was that you weren't going to appear in that Supreme Court during your tenure as attorney general. What did that mean exactly - that you wouldn't ever walk into the court, that you wouldn't want to argue a case yourself, which I'm not sure or an attorney general ever would do anyways? Like, what did you not do that you might ordinarily have done?

HOLDER: Yeah. It's actually a tradition that every attorney general argues at least one case before the United States Supreme Court. The solicitor general...

GROSS: I didn't know that.

HOLDER: Yeah. The solicitor general, as I say in the book, picks, you know, basically the easiest case that's up for the term so that the attorney general will go in there, have to deal with the easiest questions and get close to guaranteed, you know, victory. And I actually kind of looked forward to the possibility of arguing before the court.

When I was the deputy attorney general, I remember watching Janet Reno go to the court. And you have to wear the appropriate clothes. And she had what she described as a pretty good, you know, interaction with the court. And, of course, you know, she won. I didn't want to do my argument during the first term out of concern that something might be said or characterized. It might hurt the president, so I was going to wait for the second term.

And after Shelby County, which happened in the second term in 2013, I decided I was not going to go to the court, given what I felt they had done in the Shelby County case and in some ways legitimize that tradition. I wanted to at least make clear among those who knew at the Justice Department that this attorney general was not going to argue a case before the Supreme Court. You know, solicitor general, people who had served as solicitor general before Don tried to convince me to do it. And I told them I just wasn't going to go up there and argue a case.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Holder, who served as attorney general under President Obama. His new book is called "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Eric Holder. He was attorney general under President Obama. His new book is called "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote."

You know, you said that you started to think of the court as being more ideological, not more partisan, but more ideological. Now we're expecting the Supreme Court to basically undo Roe v. Wade because we had a preview of the decision. Now, it's only a draft. But it's likely to - the final version is likely to be a variation of that draft. What are your impressions of the Supreme Court now in the light of that likely decision?

HOLDER: Yeah. I mean, I don't think we're likely to see the opinion that was leaked that had that caustic, heated, over-the-top language. I'd be very surprised if much of that opinion itself survives or the language of that opinion survives. I think it's likely, on the other hand, that you will probably get five justices who will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. And that'll be a seismic thing for this country. And it is, I think, a continuation of the court acting in an ideological way. You know, the court is supposed to respect precedent, apply facts to that precedent, and then jurisprudentially come up with an appropriate decision. I think what the court is doing here is deciding by personnel. The only thing that's different about the cases, the Mississippi case - the Mississippi abortion case that the court is deciding and other cases that are coming before it - are not the facts, necessarily. I mean, these kind of statutes would have been slapped down quite easily by a prior court.

The only thing that's changed is who's on the court. And that's a really dangerous thing. Precedent is the glue for our judicial system. If you replace that with who serves on the courts, what is the majority of, you know, Democrats or Republican appointees or conservatives and liberals, if that becomes the focus, then you get what, I think, the nation is about to experience. It's the first time ever that we have had a right taken away from the people of this country. This is something that people have relied on for almost 50 years. And we're going to see a sea change in the way in which women's reproductive issues are dealt with in a wide swath of this country.

GROSS: You were an advocate of marriage equality. Do you think that the basis of the Supreme Court's probable abortion decision, you know, the draft of the abortion decision, would lead to the overturning of marriage equality, even though the draft says that this interpretation of privacy only applies to, you know, Roe v. Wade, not to other decisions? But in another case, it could apply to other decisions, right? It's just not mandatory that it apply.

HOLDER: Well, that's exactly right. Once you go after the underpinnings of Roe v. Wade, which really rests on a 1960s case, Griswold v. Connecticut, which establishes the right to privacy - once you, in essence, say that the right to privacy - or question whether or not the right to privacy exists and whether or not there - whatever you can get from an eviscerated right to privacy and say, well, that doesn't give to the women of this country the ability to have abortions, it's hard to put that, for lack of a better term, you know, that toothpaste back in the tube. The right to privacy stands for a whole range of things that we as Americans have come to think of as our - to which we are entitled, our rights. Among them are same-sex marriage. That is really - goes, you know, to substantive due process, to liberty and to the right to privacy. And so once you've attacked the right to privacy in the way that the court appears ready to do in the abortion context, it necessarily means that everything else that rests on that same right to privacy is now at risk.

GROSS: What was your blood pressure like when Mitch McConnell blocked President Obama from appointing Merrick Garland as a Supreme Court justice, saying it was just too late in Obama's tenure as president? I mean, he wouldn't even let the nomination move forward. You were no longer attorney general. But I'm sure you felt very strongly.

HOLDER: Sure. I felt very strongly about the fact that they were blocking even the consideration. It would be terrible if they had voted down Merrick Garland as a justice. But they didn't even give him the courtesy of a vote. And I thought that was outrageous. And as you said, my blood pressure was pretty high, not nearly as high as it was, however - or, you know, it was higher when I heard that Amy Coney Barrett was going to be considered as a Supreme Court justice. The original rationale for denying Merrick Garland an opportunity, a vote, was that the appointment had come - or the nomination had come too close to an election. Well, that's what Mitch McConnell said.

And then, when Amy Coney Barrett was nominated by President Trump and while people were actually in the process of voting - this was 230 days or something before an election. This is while people were voting. They ended up, in a hurried manner, I think, over the course of, like, four or five weeks, confirmed her as a Supreme Court justice. Total hypocrisy. I mean, total hypocrisy. That kind of action by McConnell and his Republican colleagues really gets - you know, it's politically expedient. And I think they thought they had some kind of political masterstroke. But they did so at the expense of the legitimacy of the court.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Holder, who was attorney general under President Obama. His new book is called "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Eric Holder, who served as attorney general under President Obama. He's written a new book called "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote."

When you left your position as attorney general, in addition to returning to private practice, you made redistricting your cause. As we've discussed, voting rights has always been a really important issue to you. But, you know, redistricting is a different way of dealing with voting than, say, campaigns to get out the vote or even trying to strike down restrictive voter laws. Why did you make redistricting and gerrymandering your issue?

HOLDER: Yeah. When I left the department, what I said in - I had a number of going away ceremonies, and what I said in each one of them was that although I was leaving the position, I was never going to leave the work. And then I had to try to define, well, what did that mean? What did the work mean? And it really came down to me for protection of voting rights. And then I was trying to think, well, within voting rights, what is it - what's the issue that I might be able to focus on? And as I looked at what happened in 2011, in 2012, the last time the country redistricted, I saw what Republicans had done there. Princeton University did a study and said that that was the worst gerrymandering of the past half century.

And as a result of that gerrymandering, you saw a shift in power to Republicans over the course of the decade that was inconsistent with the amount of popular support they were getting. And that had a real substantive impact on a whole range of policy issues from, oh, from gun safety, you know, voting rights, climate, a whole range of issues, because gerrymandering has an impact not only at the federal level, but at the state level as well. And so I said, you know, that's a place where I think I'd like to focus to make sure that when - the next time we redistrict which would be in 2021, 2022, because of the pandemic, to make sure that the process is done in a much more fair way, and so that we have a decade where the parties will be competing against one another on the basis of their ideas, their policies, their candidates, as opposed to who had the ability to draw better lines at the beginning of the redistricting process.

If you look at the ways in which - in that past decade, the negative impact of the gerrymandering, it was profound. And we see it actually now in what we're dealing with, where you have these antiabortion bills that are not supported in the states - by the people in the states where they come from, but state legislators can vote for them. And because they're in safe gerrymandered districts, they face no electoral consequence for doing something that's inconsistent with the desires of their constituents. And that's what enables the Supreme Court to write a decision that potentially will undo Roe v. Wade. I mean, they are - the Supreme Court is really just looking at state statutes.

GROSS: You grew up during the civil rights era, and as you were coming of age you watched Malcolm X get assassinated, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers. You saw attacks on citizens just standing up for their right to vote. As the first African American attorney general who was serving under the first African American president, did you think a lot about assassination threats because you were at a very impressionable age when black leaders were getting killed? And I don't know if I've hit on a very sensitive subject that might be difficult to discuss, but I thought I'd ask.

HOLDER: Yeah. It is not something that you allow to be front of mind because it could be a crippling thing. And yet, yeah, there are, you know, those thoughts. I grew up, as you said, at a time when Medgar Evers was killed, when Dr. King was killed, you know, when civil rights workers, you know, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner were killed, when John Lewis was beaten. You know, interestingly, Malcolm X lived on 97th Street and 23rd Avenue in Queens. I lived on 101st Street and 24th Avenue in Queens. He lived four blocks away from me. I knew Malcolm X's house. I first saw Muhammad Ali, he was in - Cassius Clay - in front of Malcolm X's house and got an autograph from him. That's just a little side note there.

And so it's not something that I talked about much with Barack, you know, other than kiddingly every once in a while. But it was something that, you know, we were cognizant of. He was ably protected by the Secret Service. I was ably protected by the FBI. And I think, you know, there were some extra measures that were taken that we don't really discuss. But it was - I felt that with the protection that I had, I didn't have to focus on those concerns, and I could just go about, you know, doing my job.

GROSS: Did having Malcolm X live just a few blocks away from you make him - this iconic figure - more real to you? He wasn't somebody on TV only. His home - you'd pass it in your neighborhood. And I'm sure you might have felt the shock of his assassination more as a result of being so - in such close proximity to his home. What impact did that have on you?

HOLDER: You know, it's an interesting question because I did see him, you know, occasionally and not, you know, not a great deal, but occasionally. And he was just, you know, this guy who had a funny last name. I didn't totally understand that as a kid, different religion - he didn't go to any of the churches, you know, in my neighborhood. But I understood that he was a man of significance and a person who was to be respected. Even if my father, who didn't agree with, you know, who Malcolm was and the things that he espoused, I heard that in my house as well. It wasn't until his assassination, after his assassination, and I got to high school and I read the autobiography of Malcolm X that I really understood the significance of him, the greatness of him, and the promise of him that was taken from us. That is a book that I consider probably the most influential book that I've ever read. But I think he was poised to be a much more important figure for the world at large and for white Americans at large, and he was taken from us too soon. But the reading of that book made me understand how lucky I was to live as close to him as I did. I only regret that, in some ways, that - as the young guy that I was, I didn't fully comprehend it then, you know, the greatness that was so near to me.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Holder, who was attorney general under President Obama and is now - in addition to being in private practice, he is the chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. His new book is called "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Eric Holder. He was attorney general under President Obama and is now the author of the new book "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote."

Your parents are from Barbados. You grew up in Manhattan or in Queens?

HOLDER: In Queens.

GROSS: In Queens, N.Y. Did your view of America, growing up in New York City, differ from your parents, having moved here to the U.S.?

HOLDER: I think different in this way. My parents, as immigrants, love this country unquestioningly. My father came here as a 13-, 14-year-old boy. His mother moved here a couple of years before him, then sent for him and his sister. And he always thought this was the greatest country in the world, no questions asked. He served in World War II. And while he was in uniform in this country, first in North Carolina, he was told to get to the back of a bus, while in uniform in war. While he was in Kansas - I'm sorry, in Oklahoma, he was told to go to the back of a luncheonette to get a hamburger or something like that, again, in war while he was in uniform.

Those, for me, the child of the '60s, would have been shattering, consequential, you know, differing ways in which I might have viewed my nation. But for him, they were simply things that had to be overcome. And so that was, I think, the difference between us. I grew up, you know, born in the early '50s, come of age in the '60s when we were questioning everything. And it was something that, you know, presented a bit of a schism between me and my father. Again, I questioned everything. It wasn't that he questioned nothing. He was a proud Black man. And he understood that there was a need for progress. But he really had a faith in this country that was unshakable. And I - you know, it is to his generation that I owe the success, you know, that I've had - people who loved this country when the country didn't love them back.

You know, most people who protest are people who love this country. But it's also the quiet patriots, you know, like my father. And I think at the end of the day, in a lot of ways, you know, maybe he was right because that soldier who was discriminated against in uniform during World War II turned out to be the father of the first Black attorney general of the United States.

GROSS: You went to Columbia University as an undergraduate, also as a law student. I think during your undergraduate years, that that was the period that there were constant protests at Columbia when Columbia's - students from Columbia were sitting in and taking control of administrative buildings. Were you part of those protests?

HOLDER: Yeah, I sure was, as a freshman in 1969, 1970. There was an abandoned ROTC office on campus, and a group of Black students at Columbia decided that we would to take it over and convert it into a place where Black students could gather. We called it a Black lounge, a place where Black students could gather, study, you know, listen to music - just a place where, on a white campus, people of color could come together. And the place still exists. It's called - it's now called the Malcolm X Lounge. So that would happen in 1969. And the place still exists in the dorm where I lived - Hartley Hall. And, you know, it's one of the reasons why I love Columbia so much. They took these testosterone-afflicted, young 18-year-olds and said, you know, they're raising a legitimate concern. There's no place to meet for Black students. They're doing so in a way that we don't necessarily support, but we're going to talk to them. And we came to an agreement so that we actually got the Black lounge.

And to take it one step further, the dean, who was the dean of Columbia at the time, was guy named Henry Coleman. And, you know, we said some unkind things to him. He kept his cool. And I actually had the chutzpah as a senior at Columbia to ask him to write my law school recommendations, which he very, you know, wonderfully did. We became friends. And both of us received - I guess it's the highest award you can get from the college - it's called the John Jay Award - on the same night. And I thought that was kind of a - it was, for me, a pretty emotional thing to have Dean Coleman get his award on the same day that, you know, out of control. Freshman Eric Holder got his award. But it is why I love the man and it is why I love - I continue to love Columbia.

GROSS: How did your parents feel about you being a part of those student protests? I mean, here you were, like, I'm sure they saved money and worked hard, made sure you got a good education, which you did. You went to Columbia, one of the best universities in the country. And then what are you doing? You're part of an uprising on campus. Did they think of you as being, like, really ungrateful both to the university and to them and to your country?

HOLDER: I can encapsulate their reaction in this story. Somebody comes to my dorm room the night of the takeover and says, hey, we're taking over the ROTC office. We're going to form a lounge. You know, it's going to be for Black kids. So I'm there. Voom (ph). I go, you know, just go, leave my dorm room. And I'm there. The next day, I have to come back, get some clothes, because we figured this is going to be a long siege. And my phone rings, and it's my mother. And she says, hey, what's going on up at Columbia? I understand some, you know, some Black kids have taken over the - an ROTC office. And I said, yeah, I'm one of them, mom. And she said, you're what? And she gave it to me, like, I didn't raise you to do this kind of thing. Your father and I saved money so that you'd go to this really great school. You worked hard in high school. And you're going to put it all in risk for some stupid thing like a Black lounge? I don't want you going back there.

And I got out of the conversation, got my clothes and went back to the lounge. But you asked what my reaction - my parents' reaction was. Luckily, my father wasn't on the phone. My mother, as excited as she was, didn't threaten me in any way other than to express, you know, extreme disappointment. And my father probably would have said I'm going to come down and break your neck if you try to go back there. But that's who they were.

GROSS: So did you feel like this was a turning point for you, that you had to decide between supporting your parents' point of view or supporting the social change, the campus change that you believed in? Were you getting pulled in two directions? Yeah.

HOLDER: Yeah. I didn't really think I was getting pulled in two directions because in spite of the fact that my mother and I'm sure my father expressed, you know, were dissatisfied with the decision I made, they were also extremely supportive. And they were also people who were not afraid to fight for causes that they thought were just. And I thought - I didn't have the time, really, to explain to my mom why I was doing what I was doing. In years past, and we had that inability to have that conversation before she passed away, you know, she indicated that she understood, you know, what I was doing and ultimately expressed support for what I was doing, but also told me that she didn't understand at the time why I was doing what I was doing because I had not explained it maybe as well. But I think it was kind of consistent with their view of, you know, of fighting for your rights.

GROSS: So, you know, your cause is voting rights and voting equality. A lot of people don't vote, and they say, like, why bother? Nothing changes. Both parties have problems. I - it's not going to matter. What do you say to them?

HOLDER: That's nonsense. John Lewis and President Johnson both said it best that the vote is the most powerful instrument that we have, the most powerful nonviolent instrument that we have to bring about positive change. And we have seen that demonstrated throughout our history. You know, people gave their lives - those civil rights workers in 1964 in Mississippi. People understand the story. They died there. They were killed by the Klan. They forget they were down there to register people to vote. They understood what Freedom Summer was all about. It was to get people the right to vote.

And if you look at Reconstruction, when the newly freed people had the right to vote, the South was transformed for a time. If you look at what happened in America after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, when people had the right to vote, America was transformed. A political and racial apartheid system was torn down as a result of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And that's all connected to people having the ability to decide the direction of the nation by casting a ballot. I think that you turn your back on all that's good about America if you don't do the simple thing of casting a ballot.

GROSS: Eric Holder, thank you so much for talking with us.

HOLDER: All right. Well, thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Eric Holder served as attorney general in the Obama administration. His new book is called "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how Fox News host Tucker Carlson created one of the most successful cable TV shows ever by offering messages of fear, loathing and resentment. Our guests will be New York Times reporter Nicholas Confessore, who wrote a series of articles about Carlson's show and its impact after analyzing hundreds of Carlson episodes. I hope you'll join us.

Before we go, here's something I never thought I'd have the opportunity to say. Today, FRESH AIR is celebrating its 35th anniversary as a daily national program distributed by NPR. Our thanks to our listeners and to the NPR stations that carry us. We look forward to producing many more episodes.

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