Borrowing President Barack Obama's campaign reference to "the fierce urgency of now," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on Utahns to fight for the unfulfilled promise of equal justice and to protect voting rights as a "moral imperative."
"Let's be clear we have not yet reached the promised land," Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, told a packed Salt Lake City hotel ballroom during Friday's Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission luncheon.
"Each one of us has the power and the obligation to improve the lives of others," he said in a speech that lasted fewer than 15 minutes.
Holder said he has the privilege and "solemn duty" of enforcing the reforms King pioneered. He also pointed to progress, noting the Justice Department, on his watch, has filed a record number of civil rights criminal cases.Justice, he added, has also launched a "groundbreaking" initiative to make legal services available to all comers.
Holder stressed that his civil rights division has strengthened the King-promoted Voting Rights Act to ensure every soldier, senior and student has the right to cast ballots. He pledged to support Salt Lake County in its effort to provide election materials in Spanish as now required under the act because of the county's surge in Latino population. He also vowed to protect the rights of all Americans, referencing military members serving abroad, the disabled and those facing language barriers.
"This is in keeping with the arc of American history," he told the crowd, "which always moves toward inclusion, not exclusion."
Salt Lake City resident Anthony Bennett says sometimes MLK luncheons get stereotyped as "minority events."
"But this is a justice for all event, and he spoke to that today," Bennett said. "Civil rights is not just a black issue. It's an issue for everyone, and he delivered that message quite well."
The luncheon featured light moments as well, especially during the introduction by Republican Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
"You may have heard that we're one of the reddest of red states," he joked as Holder shook his head. "No?" Shurtleff played along. "Well, we're glad to have you."
Shurtleff also said it is a credit to the U.S. attorney general's integrity that he doesn't let Obama beat him when they play basketball.
Holder who said he would never attempt to ski Utah's mountains, calling a snowboard a "ski board" received multiple standing ovations.
He and Shurtleff took turns praising each other as well.
"He's become a good friend," Holder said of Shurtleff. "He's a great attorney general. He's more of what we need in this country."
Shurtleff responded in kind.
"No one has been more open," he said, "more accessible and willing to work and collaborate with state and local officials."
Lanny Johnston, West High School's senior naval science instructor who led Friday's color guard, praised organizers for inviting so many students to hear Holder's speech.
"I liked Attorney General Shurtleff saying [Holder's] office is very hands-on," Johnston said. "That's good to hear."
Commission member Lilian Hernandez agreed it was important that so many young people heard Holder's speech, hearkening the spirit and message of the slain civil rights icon.
"Having this kind of event helps us educate them," she said. "We have a lot of problems and we need to continue working very, very hard for equality."
Some Utah Republicans had criticized the invitation of Holder, particularly congressional candidate Carl Wimmer, who has called on Obama's top cop to resign over the botched "Fast and Furious" operation, which led to U.S. guns landing in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
The state's legal community also treated Holder's visit with a collective shrug.
There were about two dozen demonstrators in front of the downtown Sheraton, but they were not there for Holder. Instead, they held "Shame on Sheraton" signs to protest hiring practices.
From Holder's speech
"Individual actions count. And those who are willing to march toward progress, to stand up for a principle, or to speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable among us can help to change and improve the world."