The protesters lay in wait among the pews of this city’s storied Ebenezer Baptist Church until Attorney General Eric Holder rose to give his remarks. For the White House, the moment had been cast as a chance for healing, the start of a “national conversation” on law-enforcement tactics with the black community one week after a Missouri grand jury brought no charges in the police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen.
After Holder began, the handmade signs were lifted and the chanting began, drowning out the voice of the nation’s top law-enforcement official. “No justice, no peace,” shouted a dozen college-age youths. “It is our duty,” they continued, “to fight for our freedoms.”
At the pulpit–the one where both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father once preached–Holder fell silent, his head erect, staring at the spectacle for several minutes until the protesters were ushered from the room. “There will be a tendency on the part of some to condemn what we just saw, but we should not,” he said finally to the congregation. Instead, Holder quoted Tupac Shakur, the late West Coast rapper. “Let me be clear,” Holder said, breaking a thin smile. “I ain’t mad atcha.”
Holder had taken his job fully expecting to bear witness at moments like this. Just weeks after entering office in 2009, he declared that “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.” He meant that instead of confronting the legacy of racism, our national pattern was to sweep our hardest questions under the rug. But the remark drew heated criticism at the time. “Meaningful progress is not made without going through this kind of painful process that I think is necessary and that we, understandably, try to avoid,” he told TIME in an interview after his Atlanta speech.
Now Holder and his boss are doing what they can to prevent this moment from slipping by like so many others in recent memory, from the killing of the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman to the arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own Cambridge, Mass., home following a false report of burglary.
President Obama spoke of Brown’s death three times in the week after the grand jury’s decision. “When any part of the American family does not feel like it is being treated fairly, that’s a problem for all of us,” Obama said at the end of a day devoted to meetings on the subject.
Holder and Obama are taking what steps they can. The President announced that he is ordering stricter protocols for transferring surplus military equipment to local police agencies and has asked Congress for $75 million to help buy 50,000 body cameras for local cops. There is also a new Task Force on 21st Century Policing co-chaired by a former Justice Department official and the commissioner of the Philadelphia police to develop recommendations to improve law-enforcement practices.
But Holder believes that the scattered nationwide protests in the wake of the grand-jury decision may change the dynamic. “I think that these protests, if done correctly, can lead to positive change,” he said. He compared the moment to the protests that followed Rosa Parks’ decision in 1955 to sit in the front of a Montgomery, Ala., bus, despite a request from the driver to join other blacks in the back. “I think the possibility exists that what happened in Ferguson could be one of those seminal moments that transforms the nation,” he said.
Atlanta was Holder’s first stop on a nationwide tour of meetings with law-enforcement, youth, community and faith leaders in hopes of rebuilding trust between police and communities of color. Next was Cleveland, where he was set to appear just 12 days after the death of a black 12-year-old, Tamir Rice, who was shot by police after displaying what turned out to be a toy gun. As it happened, that visit was scheduled to begin just hours after a grand jury in New York City declined to bring charges in the case of Eric Garner, a black Staten Island man who died while being wrestled to the ground by a police officer who held an arm around his neck. Holder also plans to visit Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Oakland, all cities where resentments between local police and the black community can run high.
He is likely to find a version of what he saw in Atlanta. After his remarks, Holder sat in the front pew applauding as 10th-grader Jazz Ingram broke down in tears after reading a poem about Brown. That was followed by a reading by 9-year-old Ashli Clark, who implored the crowd to act. “If you will not use your power to change the world we live in, then you have more to learn,” she chastised her elders. “If you do not think my life is valuable, then you definitely have more to learn.”
It has been a long road for an Attorney General whose reputation at the start of his run at the Justice Department was that of a serious, criminal-busting prosecutor. But there was little doubt that when he became the first black AG under the first black President, other issues–and other legacies–would command his attention as well. For much of the past year, the two men have moved in tandem as the end of their time in office approaches. They were vacationing together on Martha’s Vineyard when the protests first broke out in Ferguson, and after an initial delay and deliberations, the President dispatched Holder to speak to the black community there. Holder spoke about the times he had been stopped by police, even as a federal prosecutor, while doing nothing wrong, incidents he attributes to his skin color. “It meant that we were going to have to own this,” he says about his decision to travel to Ferguson.
At Justice, Holder has made a priority of reforming the criminal-justice system while calling out what he views as a “shameful” national pattern of judges’ giving longer sentences to black criminals. He launched a civil rights pattern-or-practice investigation into the Ferguson police department in addition to an ongoing federal civil rights investigation into Brown’s death. At Ebenezer Baptist, Holder announced that the Justice Department would soon put into place the first changes to profiling guidelines in more than a decade “to help end racial profiling, once and for all.”
Holder has tried to strike a careful balance, hoping to avoid the kind of controversy that surrounded his “nation of cowards” remark years ago. “I have learned, painfully so, that people actually listen to everything that I have to say,” Holder said. And he is quick to defend most police forces. “The vast majority of law-enforcement officers conduct themselves in really honorable, appropriate ways,” he said.
Obama has nominated another prosecutor, Loretta Lynch, 55, of Brooklyn, to replace Holder for the remainder of his term. Lynch’s confirmation is likely but expected to be slow and not without its own controversies, among them Republican unhappiness with Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
Which means Holder has at least a few more weeks, and possibly even months, in office. Eventually, Holder tells TIME, he plans to create an “institute of justice” meant to bring law enforcement and communities of color closer together and to continue conversations about criminal-justice reform. “The whole notion of reconciliation between law enforcement and communities of color is something that I really want to focus on,” he said. “Not just Eric Holder out there giving speeches, though certainly that could be a part of it.”
This appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of TIME.