When he announced his leave-taking last week, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke of Robert F. Kennedy as his inspiration for believing that the Justice Department "can and must always be a force for that which is right."
There are many reasons our nation's first African-American attorney general might see Kennedy as his guide, but this one may be the most important: If ever a public figure was exempt from Holder's much contested depiction of our country as a "nation of cowards" on race, it was RFK, a man who was in constant struggle with his demons and his conscience.
Few white men were as searing as Kennedy in describing how the world looked to a young black man in the late 1960s. "He is told that the Negro is making progress," Kennedy wrote, following the racial etiquette of his time. "But what does that mean to him? He cannot experience the progress of others, nor should we seriously expect him to feel grateful because he is no longer a slave, or because he can vote or eat at some lunch counters."
"How overwhelming must be the frustration of this young man -- this young American," Kennedy continued, "who, desperately wanting to believe and half believing, finds himself locked in the slums, his education second-rate, unable to get a job, confronted by the open prejudice and subtle hostilities of a white world, and seemingly powerless to change his condition or shape his future."
Yet Kennedy was never one to let individuals escape responsibility for their own fates. So he also spoke of others who would tell this young black man "to work his way up, as other minorities have done; and so he must. For he knows, and we know, that only by his efforts and his own labor will the Negro come to full equality."
Holder and his friend President Obama have lived both halves of Kennedy's parable. Like social reformers in every time, they strived to balance their own determination to succeed with their obligations to justice. Doing this is never easy. It can't be.
Kennedy was not alone among Americans in being tormented by how much racism has scarred our national story. That's why I was one of many who bristled back in 2009 when Holder called us all cowards. For all our flaws, few nations have faced up to a history of racial subjugation as regularly and comprehensively as we have. And Holder and Obama have both testified to our progress.
Yet rereading Kennedy is to understand why Holder spoke as he did. That the young man Kennedy described is still so present and recognizable tells us that complacency remains a subtle but corrosive sin. One of Holder's finest hours as attorney general was his visit to Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of Michael Brown. Many young black men still fear they will be shot, a sign that the "open prejudice and subtle hostilities of a white world" have not gone away. We have moved forward, yet we still must overcome.
Holder leaves two big legacies in this area from which his successors must not turn away. In the face of a regressive Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, he has found other ways to press against renewed efforts to disenfranchise minority voters. And it is a beacon of hope that sentencing reform and over-incarceration, central Holder concerns, are matters now engaging conservatives, libertarians and liberals alike.
The New York Times' Matt Apuzzo captured the irony of Holder's tenure with the observation that his time as attorney general "is unique in that his biggest supporters are also among his loudest critics." Many progressives have been troubled by his record on civil liberties in the battle against terrorism, his aggressive pursuit of journalists' emails and phone records in leak investigations, and his reluctance to prosecute individual Wall Street malefactors.
That these issues will long be debated is a reminder that Holder was first a lawyer and public servant, most of whose work had nothing to do with race. That he singled out Kennedy as his hero shows that none of us need be imprisoned by race. That Holder cajoled and provoked us on the need "to confront our racial past, and our racial present" is itself an achievement that transcends the color line.
Kennedy, who spoke of those who braved "the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society," would understand the risks that Holder ran.
E.J. Dionne is a nationally syndicated columnist.