Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at UB Distinguished Speaker Series

Holder discusses early childhood, safe spaces and free speech


Eric Holder’s biggest fear growing up was Raymond Ellis, the neighborhood thug.

“That threat growing up of violence [when] going to the park to play basketball, to play softball or baseball was always that thing growing up in your subconscious,” Holder said. “You’re afraid about running into somebody or something and I wasn’t a fighter. I wasn’t the guy who was taking anyone on. I always tried to talk my way out of stuff.”

Holder, the 82nd U.S. Attorney General and first black Attorney General, grew up in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Queens, NY with parents who emigrated from Barbados.

When Holder heard that Ellis was shot and killed in a robbery attempt a few blocks away from his house, his fear turned into bravery.

His childhood always reminded him how other children of color felt every day. Once he became attorney general, he knew that his primary responsibility was public safety.

“[I had to make sure that] the child living in South Central Los Angeles, Chicago or some place in New York, didn’t have that same fear that might've had an impact on his or her ability to maximize their potential. I tried never ever to forget that.” Holder said.

Holder spoke as the 41st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Keynote Speaker as a part of UB’s Distinguished Speaker Series on Thursday night. Holder told several jokes throughout the night, often sounding more like a friend than a politician. He gave a brief speech then took questions from interim Law School dean James Gardner and former law school dean and distinguished law professor Makau Mutua, who sat on stage beside him for the entire night.

Holder also answered questions from students at the event and took questions via Twitter. He joked that because he’s no longer apart of the Obama Administration, he could say “whatever he wants” and encouraged the audience to ask him anything. Holder delved into politics but also discussed his early life growing up in New York City. He talked about blacks people’s relations with law enforcement, safe spaces and free speech.

Holder also held an informal session on Thursday afternoon where he answered questions from a crowd of predominantly law students and took selfies with them once the session concluded.

A student asked Holder about the role of free speech in college settings, specifically referencing the violent protests that emerged at UC Berkeley when controversial journalist Milo Yiannopoulos was pegged to speak.

“Well let me start this way, Milo whatever his last name is, is an idiot,” Holder said to a roaring applause. “He’s an idiot, I disagree with him, he’s a provocateur, he’s not sincere in his beliefs and yet if we are going to be true to our First Amendment and the right of people to engage, he should have been allowed to speak. We have to have that safe space.”

While Holder does agree with Yiannopoulos, he said free speech entitles him to be heard. He explained that college settings should offer all kinds of dialogue even if it's controversial or abhorrent.

“But let me be clear, he’s an idiot.” Holder said.

Mutua read a question submitted via Twitter, which asked if getting into an Ivy League school meant students would lose touch on their black culture.

Holder earned his both his bachelor's degree in American history and J.D. from Columbia University.

“I’m still a brother,” Holder responded with pride.

The low number of black students at Columbia did not take away from his experiences at the university, he said. Instead, it made him form a close community with students of color and he left college with even greater pride for his race.

“I didn’t lose my identity as a black man [or] black person at Columbia. In fact, in a lot of ways my perception of myself as an African American was enhanced by my experiences there.”

Holder said he has three role models: his father, Malcolm X and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

He described his father as a “strong west-Indian” who was abandoned by his father, who came to the U.S. around the age of 13 and made sure his boys did not have the experiences that he had.

When Holder was a teenager, he learned that his father didn’t finish high school. His father waited to tell him because he was too ashamed.

“He was the wisest man I’ve ever known and a person I try to emulate even til this day,” Holder said.

Holder didn’t know Malcolm X personally, but when he read his autobiography and saw the transition from “petty criminal, to race hater, to a person who understands the universality of human beings,” he became his hero.

Holder loved Kareem Abdul Jabbar's combination of athleticism, intellectualism and his pride in his blackness. He now considers him not only a role model, but a friend.

Holder discussed a wealth of political issues during the night, including President Donald Trump’s travel ban. He called the ban unconstitutional as a matter of law and unwise as a matter of policy.

“I think it will make more difficult our struggles against terrorism, although that’s what is aimed at. It tends to convert this war against terrorism into a religious war, which plays right into the hands of Al-Qaeda, ISIS and their derivatives,” he said.

Gardner asked Holder how college students, who were born well after Dr. King made strides for civil rights, could keep his memory fresh and meaningful. Holder said students must study and understand who Dr. King was.

“[Dr. King] was more than just a great speech in 1963 in Washington D.C. He was an activist. He was a person who was not popular in his time. He was person of great courage,” Holder said.

Holder believes if Dr. Martin Luther King were to come back and ask what the country has become since he died, he would see that a black man was president of the U.S. and a black man was attorney general of the U.S.
He would see blacks better off economically than they were in his time and he would see a rise in black political power.

And yet, he would come back and be very disappointed by the relationship between people of color and law enforcement, where a lack of trust existed back then and continues to exist today, Holder said.

Holder hoped people would find a way to become actively involved in politics.

He said the Vietnam War didn’t end because Richard Nixon made a military decision that the war ended. It ended because people went out into the streets, protested and made the people in power understand that they didn’t support the war.

“Don’t underestimate the power of American people in the streets protesting, but understand also that we can’t simply have a moment, we need a movement. It means being involved, it means being understanding. Progress is not linear, as Dr. King knew. There are going to be setbacks, there’s going to be failings, there’s going to be problems. But that arc continues as long as people put their hands on it and it continues towards justice,” Holder said.

Ashley Inkumsah is the co-senior news editor and can be reached at