RALEIGH, N.C. — The United States still suffers from racial inequality in everything from unemployment rates to the length of prison terms, Attorney General Eric Holder told a group of civil rights veterans on Saturday.
Holder, speaking at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said the civil rights movement made tremendous progress, most notably by helping to create a climate in which a black American could be elected president.
But, in everything from the effects of the Great Recession to the criminal justice system, Holder said, disparities persist.
“It will take more than the election of the first African American president to fully secure equality for each American,” he said.
The economic downturn has affected blacks to a greater degree than it has other Americans, he said, with unemployment among young black males the highest it’s been since the 1930s. And legal disparities such as stiffer sentences for people caught with crack cocaine instead of powder cocaine contribute to a system where blacks and Latinos get longer prison terms than their white counterparts, he said.
“There is still work to be done, and this Justice Department will be about that work,” he told the gathering, which organizers estimated to be at roughly 500, in a gymnasium belonging to Raleigh’s First Baptist Church.
Holder described himself as a beneficiary of the work done by SNCC — universally called “snick” — and he was joined Saturday by one of the group’s most famous names, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
The 12-term congressman, who served as SNCC’s chairman in the early 1960s, gave a rousing speech to the crowd, in which he called on the graying veterans of the civil rights struggle to again take to the streets, this time as a counterbalance to conservative populism.
“You can’t let the other crowd be out there alone, with their tea and their bags and their signs,” he said. “You’ve got to get out and organize and agitate and stand up and make some noise.”
“You’re not too old to fight,’’ he told the crowd just before its members rose for an impromptu version of the old folk song “This Little Light of Mine.” “You’re not too old to push and pull.”
SNCC was founded in April 1960 at Shaw University in Raleigh, where organizer Ella Baker convened a meeting of student activists using an $800 grant from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Its members undertook some of the most dangerous tasks of the civil rights movement, pushing to desegregate interstate bus terminals and register black voters in parts of the American South that were strongholds for segregation.
“We marched until our feet hurt,” said the Rev. David Forbes, a founding member of the group. “We had no idea — I did not — that our marching would lead to what we have now.”
In the mid-1960s, the group became more militant under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase “black power,” and H. Rap Brown, both of whom ultimately left to join the Black Panther Party.
Last Saturday, both black and white veterans of the group said that, when they began their involvement as college students during the Kennedy administration, they could not have imagined being addressed by a black attorney general who himself was appointed by a black president.
“This is what we marched for,” Forbes said.
But many in the crowd also agreed with Holder’s assessment that the work of the movement is incomplete.
“There’s a danger of a kind of self-congratulatory complacence on the part of people in the movement, and in America at large,” said Mike Thelwell, a former SNCC field secretary who now lives in Amherst, Mass.
“Our generation thought in the 1960s that we would be leaving our children a more just and humane society,” he said. “I worry the reverse is true.”