Hours before Attorney General Eric Holder announced he would seek new federal powers to protect minority voters in the state of Texas, the country’s top law enforcement officer mingled at a Washington event about a topic that hit close to home.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and other notable civil rights anniversaries this year, a mix of Washington lawyers and luminaries sat down Wednesday night to screen the 1963 documentary “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment.” The cinema verite look at President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the pivotal federal response to the integration at the University of Alabama featured another character who’s not as well known: Vivian Malone, the sister of Holder’s wife, prominent D.C. obstetrician Sharon Malone.
“The timing of this particular film festival and what’s going on in our country today is nothing short of providential,” Malone told the audience at the National Museum for Women in the Arts.
Malone recalled that her older sister Vivian showed up at the school to register for classes in June 1963. The incident seared into the nation’s memory after Alabama Gov. George Wallace made a “stand in the schoolhouse door” to try to block her entry. A day later, civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in Mississippi in front of his wife and children. Then, two weeks after school started that September, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, and four little girls were killed.
“The question that comes to my mind is, exactly what were my parents thinking?” Malone said. “I have a daughter now who’s exactly the same age as Vivian and I tell you I just cannot imagine it.”
For his part, Holder made no public remarks at the March on Washington Film Festival. But the office he now occupies on the fifth floor of the Justice Department, as its first black attorney general, looks very much the same as it did 50 years ago. He even keeps a portrait of Robert Kennedy hanging up on the wall.
To his audience at the National Urban League’s annual conference in Philadelphia Thursday, some of that history was not so far away. The league was founded in 1910 to help fight discrimination and segregation. And in recent years, it’s expressed concern about voter disenfranchisement, especially after a Supreme Court ruling last month that effectively gutted one of the Justice Department’s best tools to fight discrimination at the ballot box.
“For nearly five decades, this requirement called ‘preclearance’ served as a potent tool for addressing inequities in our election systems,” Holder told the crowd. “Although preclearance originated during the civil rights movement and was informed by a history of discrimination, the conduct that it was intended to address continues to this day.”
The Attorney General said he would seek to yank the state of Texas back under federal oversight using a different part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that’s still on the books.
“This is the department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last,” Holder said.