Trayvon Martin: Obama, Holder React

Controversy: Obama’s public comment about Trayvon Martin drew fire from the right, while Holder’s Justice Department investigation has pleased black leaders. Roberto Gonzalez / Getty Images

Eric Holder Jr. left the comfortable confines of the Justice Department for the Old Executive Office Building, where 150 black ministers awaited him. Outside, across the country, outraged African-Americans were massing to protest the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, demanding justice for the unarmed teen killed by a neighborhood-watch captain. Holder was coming to the long-scheduled session with the clergy to discuss voting rights and housing discrimination, among other civil-rights initiatives. But "I knew [Trayvon] would be on the ministers' minds," Holder told Newsweek.

As he strode into the ornate Indian Treaty room, it was on his mind, too. The nation's first African-American attorney general had ignited a political firestorm only days after taking office in 2009, when he called America a "nation of cowards" for its unwillingness to speak frankly about race. He'd been chastised by the White House for his candor, and has been careful on the subject ever since. The political crosswinds surrounding the Martin case were tricky. Tread too cautiously, and the ministers—the moral force of a black community up in arms—could pounce. Lay it on too thick about ethnic identity, and critics could accuse the attorney general of race hustling.

Holder pledged swift action. The ministers were pleased. "They seemed assured by the promise of a thorough and independent review, and the fact that this was something that the A.G. had personally focused on," Holder said. The Rev. Calvin Butts III, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, was in the room. "We listened very closely," he said. Holder's statement "gave us a sense of relief that finally something was being done that was independent of the Sanford police and the state of Florida, which made us say, 'Great!'?"

But the delicate nature of the administration's handling of the case became apparent when Obama offered his own public comment on the subject, saying "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." His remark, which drew wide praise for humanizing the tragedy, was also pilloried by Newt Gingrich. "Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK, because it didn't look like him? That's just nonsense, dividing this country up."

Getting the balance right has been a constant, and historic, challenge for both Holder and his boss. "Given who I am, I am acutely aware of our nation's historical, and current, struggle with issues of racial injustice," Holder says. But "I understand that my personal focus must also be a broad one. I am the attorney general of the United States and the concerns of the entirety of our nation must be, and are, my primary responsibility."

Obama and Holder have been wrestling with that balance since their earliest days in office. They are both black men raised outside the African-American mainstream (Obama as the son of a white mother and an African father; Holder's family comes from the West Indies). Both worked their way into the top tier of America's professional and political elite. They have led lives committed to racial progress and yet are wary of being defined by the color of their skin. And they are both married to smart, principled women who are themselves the descendants of American slaves and who in some ways act as their husbands' consciences on race. (The wives are also good friends; the first lady sometimes stops by for "pizza night" at the Holders' home.)

Both men have also felt the searing pain of racism. In Dreams From My Father, Obama writes about the time a tennis pro told him not to touch the schedule of games pinned up on a bulletin board because his "color might rub off." When Holder was a young Justice Department lawyer, he had his own brush with racial profiling; he was stopped by police while dashing to catch a movie in Georgetown. They shined a floodlight on him and asked him why he was running.

When Obama first called Holder after the 2008 election to offer him the attorney general's job, they talked less about fighting terrorism and traditional crime than the urgent need to restore the department's historic mission of protecting the vulnerable. Holder seized the chance to revitalize the fabled Civil Rights Division, which they believed had been politicized by President George W. Bush.

It was a poignant scene as Holder arrived at Justice for his first day on the job. Employees lined up along the walls and peered over railings to catch a glimpse of their new boss. Among them were elderly African-American women, longtime civil servants, openly weeping at the sight of the first black attorney general.

But about two weeks later Holder found himself embroiled in racial controversy. In what otherwise might have been an innocuous Black History Month speech to Justice Department employees, Holder made his "nation of cowards" remark. Even the president chided him. "I think it's fair to say that if I had been advising my attorney general, we would have used different language," Obama told The New York Times. The comment stung. Holder retreated from public engagement on racial issues.

Meanwhile, Obama was having his own stumbles. Following the news that Harvard law professor Henry Louis Gates had been arrested for "breaking into" his own house after being locked out, the president tartly noted in response to a reporter's question at a news conference that the Cambridge police had acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates. Obama was lacerated in the press. Over at Justice, there was no small amount of schadenfreude that even someone as eloquent on racial matters as Obama could get burned by the emotional subject.

But Holder has been getting back in the game of late. This past Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Day, Holder gave a speech on the steps of the State House in Columbia, S.C., vowing to never allow the voting rights of black Americans and other minorities to be rolled back. With a Confederate flag snapping in the wind nearby, Holder told the audience: "The reality is —in jurisdictions across the country—both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common."

Holder has been meeting regularly with black leaders to rally support for the administration's policies. He's overseen the effort to reenergize civil-rights enforcement with his department bringing a record number of criminal cases—among them, the successful prosecution of New Orleans police officers for the illegal shootings of civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He's also launched an aggressive campaign to counter state voting laws that critics say disenfranchise minorities.

Early this week, Holder will get a briefing on the fast-moving developments in the Martin case. Justice Department staffers have interviewed Martin's parents, and the probe is proceeding apace. The outcome—and how much the Obama administration is identified with it—could have a lasting impact on the president's legacy on racial issues, and the attorney general's, too. Come Election Day, it might even help rally the black community, which has sometimes been disappointed that the president has not done more for its members.

The Rev. Butts promises to keep the pressure on. "I'm the gadfly on President Obama's back all the time, saying you've got to advocate more on behalf of African-Americans. You've got to say more and say it louder. I know I get on his nerves, but I'm the one crying out in the wilderness. But they hear me and others like me."