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AG Eric Holder delivers civil rights speech in Boston

Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the "Protecting Civil Rights: A Symposium on Key Civil Rights Issues" symposium in South Boston on Tuesday.

Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the "Protecting Civil Rights: A Symposium on Key Civil Rights Issues" symposium in South Boston on Tuesday.

US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday that this nation’s struggle for civil rights is far from over and that his administration has vigorously cracked down on hate crimes, human trafficking, and police misconduct.

“In the past three fiscal years, we prosecuted 35 percent more hate crime cases than during the preceding three-year period,” Holder said.

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Holder, in South Boston to deliver the keynote address at a Department of Justice civil rights symposium, also said there is growing concern among the public that hard-fought civil rights advances are eroding.

“Here in Boston and all across our country, it’s impossible to ignore the growing concerns from citizens who feel, often for the first time in their lifetimes, that the hard-won progress of the civil rights era has come under renewed threat,” said Holder, speaking to a crowd of about 400 civil rights activists, educators, law enforcement officials, and students at the Seaport World Trade Center.

“Even in America’s most vibrant cities, too many neighborhoods continue to [be] afflicted by the same disparities, divisions, and problems that decades ago so many struggled, sacrificed, fought, and even died to address.”

The seven-hour Protecting Civil Rights symposium included numerous panel discussions ranging from bullying in schools to protecting the civil rights of service members.

Holder’s 15-minute speech was followed by a speech from Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of the Rev. Oliver Brown, who was named as plaintiff in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that dismantled school segregation.

“When history knocked on our door, there was a willingness to say yes because there was an understanding that being a United States citizen was not a spectator sport,” she said.

“It wasn’t about school and children at all; society was in fact the target, even though public education was the battlefront.”

Henderson’s speech often drew a line between the sanctioned discrimination of decades past to issues that Holder’s office routinely investigates, like unfair housing practices and hate crimes.

Holder said the Justice Department has been busier in the past three years than ever before filing criminal civil rights cases and police misconduct, hate crime, and human trafficking cases.

“Last year the Civil Rights Division’s Fair Lending Unit settled or filed a record number of cases, including the largest fair lending settlement in history, totaling more than $330 million to hold financial institutions accountable for discriminating against African- and Hispanic-Americans,” he said.

“These successes have sent a strong message and a clear warning to those who commit these offenses that they will be stopped, they will be held accountable, and they will punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

Holder also addressed the Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday striking down significant portions of the Arizona immigration law, but allowing a contentious provision that requires police officers to review the immigration status of any detainee they suspect is in this country illegally.

“I’m pleased that [the] court confirmed the serious constitutional questions that we raised about the law,” he said.

“I do remain concerned about the law’s potential impact, and specifically about the requirement for law enforcement officials to verify the immigrant status of any person lawfully stopped or detained when they have reason to suspect that the person is here unlawfully.”

Holder, facing a contempt charge for withholding from Congress documents related to a failed gun-running investigation into the flow of weapons from Arizona to Mexico, appeared relaxed and even joked about the impending House of Representatives vote in that matter on Thursday.

President Obama has invoked executive privilege on the documents.

Holder, in citing his busy schedule, drew laughter when he quipped, “I’ll be very busy on Thursday, apparently.”

Brian R. Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @globeballou.
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