Sid Salter Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Attorney General nominee Holder has history in the state of Mississippi

Mississippians have already had significant experience with President-elect Barack Obama’s apparent designate as the nation’s next attorney general.

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In 1997, Eric Holder became the highest-ranking African-American law enforcement official in U.S. history when he was named deputy attorney general to Clinton administration Attorney General Janet Reno. Prior to that appointment, Holder was the first black to serve as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.


It was in that role that most Mississippians came to know Holder.

Reno sent Holder to Mississippi to monitor the Justice Department’s investigation into the death of Marion County teenager Raynard Johnson, 17, who was found hanging from a pecan tree not far from his family’s home near Kokomo on June 16, 2000.

Mississippi officials pointed out that two autopsies — the second at the Johnson family’s request -—concluded Raynard Johnson’s death was consistent with suicide. But Johnson’s family questioned the ruling and called on civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson and others to demand a federal investigation.

Jackson came to Mississippi and said he believed the death was racially motivated because of Raynard Johnson’s friendship with two 17-year-old white girls.

Federal investigators found no additional evidence to change the suicide ruling by Mississippi officials in the case.

Jackson attorney Brad Pigott was the U.S. attorney in Mississippi’s Southern District in 2000. He said Holder made sure federal authorities exhausted all leads in the Raynard Johnson case.

“Eric kept his mind open in the case until the last possible interview was done and pursued every possible lead,” said Pigott. “Under his direction, the Justice Department followed the evidence and ultimately the evidence led to a conclusion of suicide. He was extremely fair and listened to all perspectives in that case.”

The JSU connection

Holder and Jackson State University President Ronald  F. Mason Jr. were undergraduate and law school classmates at Columbia College and Columbia Law School. Holder graduated in 1973 from Columbia College and from Columbia Law School in 1976.

Mason and Holder are both winners of the John Jay Award honoring distinguished professional achievement from the Columbia College Alumni Association — with Holder winning in 1996 and Mason in 2008.

Holder was the speaker at Mason’s 2000 investiture at JSU.

“I think Eric is a great choice for attorney general,” said Mason. “Back in the 1970s, I’m not sure our contemporaries saw me becoming a college president, but we all saw Eric becoming attorney general or a Supreme Court justice. He was always the most disciplined and is extremely bright.”

Many conservative Mississippians will oppose Holder’s nomination on policy grounds. In 1999, Holder spoke on behalf of the Clinton administration’s gun violence reduction initiative at the National Association of Attorneys General’s Juvenile Justice and School Safety Conference in Jackson — an initiative opposed by the National Rifle Association.

But Mason said Holder’s character isn’t in question: “He’s a man of high moral standards.”

(Contact Perspective Editor Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail Visit his blog at