By Fiona Moran
Former United States Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. spoke at the Auditorium Theatre as a part of the American Dream Reconsidered Conference. On Sept. 12, Holder sat down with retired U.S. Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams to discuss voter suppression, as well as his childhood and family life.
Similar to the Ruth Bader Ginsburg event last year, Holder and Williams sat down for the speech, presented like a conversation. Before the talk began, introductory remarks were made by Roosevelt University President Ali Malekzadeh and the event’s sponsors.
Judge Williams and Holder kept the pace lighthearted and the audience of students, faculty and RU alumni laughed along.
The overall theme of the interview was on the fight for voting rights, how Holder was shaped by the initial fight for the Voting Rights Act and how he continues to fight against voter suppression today.
The conversation began by talking about Holder’s upbringing in New York City, the principles he learned from his family and how living in a majority black neighborhood while going to a majority white school shaped his worldview.
“I think in some ways it was good training,” Holder said. “I was grounded in that which I knew, in that which I loved, my family, my heritage as an African-American, and yet I was exposed… to America in a way that I think many young African-Americans then and I think now, are not.”
Throughout the interview Holder spoke highly of the relationship he had with his father, who never finished high school and pushed his children to succeed academically.
“And your dad was the one that told you that you were as good as anybody else and not to let anybody push you around,” Judge Williams said, continuing the conversation about Holder’s upbringing. While they talked about Holder’s high school years from 1965 to 1969, they interwove the stories of his youth with the main theme of the conference talk: voting rights.
Holder said the Voting Rights Act was the a landmark decision in the Civil Rights Movement. “The Voting Rights Act is the crown jewel of the civil rights movement,” Holder said. He identified the importance of the Voting Rights Act Section Five – the section that required historically Confederate states to send their election laws through the Justice Department in order to prevent racially discriminating polling practices.
Holder repeatedly brought up the Shelby County v. Holder decision as a mistake, and even went so far as to advocate that all 50 states be put under the Voting Rights Act’s old pre-clearance protocols. Holder said this is due to the fact that racially discriminative voter suppression laws are no longer an exclusively Southern issue.
Holder said Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it best about discriminative laws. “She said, ‘Just because you have an umbrella over head and that keeps you dry, that does not mean it is not raining.’”
However, Holder said the Americans are able to create change. “I think the American people tend to underestimate, we tend to underestimate the power we have as so called ordinary citizens,” Holder said.
He answered student questions that were submitted beforehand, stating the importance of voting and imploring students to exercise their right to vote and be an active participant in civic life.
Holder teased a possible presidential run. He said he would be discussing it with his family and make his decision by “early next year.”
At the end, the two speakers received a standing ovation, and the audience had positive remarks to say about the event. The hints at a possible presidential run generated the most buzz amongst those who attended.
However, some students are still worried about if their vote truly matters or are choosing to opt out of the voting process. Senior international studies major Nick Sweig said he will not vote in this upcoming election. “No, because I always thought voting was important from the beginning, but I think that it definitely will make people think more on gerrymandering…you know, a vote is a vote,” Sweig said.
Nikita Salovich, 21, a graduate student in cognitive science at Northwestern University, said she thought the conversation was empowering.
“I think that it was really empowering to hear someone who is a role model of mine speak in person, but also learn more about his personal life,” Salovich said. I felt really empowered as a woman and as a daughter of immigrants and I’m really excited to see what Holder has in hold the next coming years.”