Quite a bit has and will be written about President-elect Obama and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. for obvious reasons. Obama’s impressive electoral victory appears, on the surface at least, to support his claim that this country is moving into a post-racial identity, one that has realized the dreams of the civil rights movement. A closer look at those election results however suggests that if anything this country remains rooted in the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and that it will be the task of the Obama Administration to uproot that history once and for all.
This is why the nomination of Eric Holder Jr. for Attorney General is so critical to the legacy of the civil rights movement. If confirmed, and as of now there’s no reason to believe Holder will not be confirmed, Holder will become the first African American to head the Department of Justice. It is difficult to overstate the actual and symbolic significance of that appointment.
The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice was formed in 1957 and is charged with enforcing those laws aimed at eradicating discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, and national origin. It also coordinates the civil rights enforcement efforts of other federal agencies such as HUD and Education. The creation of the Department came at a watershed moment for civil rights advocates. In 1954, the Supreme Court issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts were launched. A decade later, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed in 1964 and 1965 respectively.
Now, 52 years after the creation of the Civil Rights Division, this country has not only an African-American president, but soon an African-American Attorney General. While voter disenfranchisement and discrimination persist, and wealth and opportunity remain in large part racially-entrenched, a gulf has been breached, a tide turned. For the first time in the history of this country we have African-Americans driving the federal government’s pledge to enforce civil rights.
Of course it remains to be seen if this appointment effects anything beyond symbolism, and if the weight of our government will be successful in securing equal opportunity and access to all our citizens, or whether this country’s slave roots simply run too deep to purge. But on the day honoring one of the great civil rights leaders, and on the eve of the Obama inauguration, let’s hope that this is the change promised in campaigns, and that we have entered a post-racial chapter that puts to bed the ghosts of Jim Crow still haunting this country.