(CN) – Speaking at a Tennessee symposium Monday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., former Attorney General Eric Holder said he believes access to the right to vote is the “chief civil rights issue of our time.”
“I am dissatisfied that more than a half a century after Dr. King helped to pass the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, far too many Americans find it hard to get the right to vote and the assurance that one’s vote is counted fairly. All of this remains under siege,” Holder said.
Holder was the keynote speaker for the MLK50 Symposium, which was hosted by the University of Memphis School of Law and the National Civil Rights Museum. The event sought to commemorate the life of King, who was assassinated in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel 50 years ago on April 4, 1968. He was 39.
Last week, Holder said in an interview he was considering a run for U.S. president in 2020 and that he would make a decision early next year.
In his speech, Holder said the anniversaries of King’s birth and death are opportunities to consider where the country is and recommit to working towards the ideals for which King worked.
“We are still marching,” Holder said. “We are still striving and we are still calling on our nation’s leaders to act with a sense of justice, compassion and common humanity because the unfortunate fact is that, in 2018, America’s long struggle to overcome injustice, to eliminate disparities, and to eradicate violence has not yet ended. And the age of bullies and bigots is not fully behind us.”
Holder was the first black person to hold the position of U.S. attorney general, after being appointed by former President Barack Obama. In the years since he stepped down in 2015, Holder has worked on voting-access issues.
Within the last few weeks, Holder backed a lawsuit against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to force a pair of special elections there. And in February, an organization Holder works with, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said it will invest millions in 11 races around the country ahead of redistricting efforts in 2021.
Holder remarked that many key events in the civil-rights movement surrounded the effort for the right to vote, such as the Selma to Montgomery marches that occurred in Alabama in 1965.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act, Holder said, was “the crown jewel of the civil-rights movement.”
Today, Holder said, work must still be done to preserve the integrity of that law. Instead of voters picking their politicians, he said politicians are picking their voters through racial and partisan gerrymandering.
Holder said that near the time of King’s assassination, the civil-rights icon had become unpopular. Two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of King, according to Holder, because he started to focus on issues such as racism, poverty and war outside the South.
Holder also commended the actions of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, who have organized protests against gun violence after 17 were killed and 17 were wounded in a mass shooting at the school on Feb. 14.
The former attorney general said the students, in organizing the March for Our Lives event in Washington, D.C., at the end of March, copied King’s tactics to launch movements of their own.
“From that citizen power, I think can come meaningful change,” Holder said.