Holder bringing personal perspective to Ferguson

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Holder bringing personal perspective to Ferguson
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Photos surround the casket of Michael Brown inside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church awaiting the start of his funeral on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis Missouri. Michael Brown,18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by a Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Richard Perry-Pool/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: A St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap at rests on top of the casket of Michael Brown inside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church awaiting the start of his funeral on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis Missouri. Michael Brown,18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by a Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Richard Perry-Pool/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Director Spike Lee takes a picture of a black St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap that rests on top of the casket of Michael Brown inside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church awaiting the start of his funeral on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis Missouri. Michael Brown,18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by a Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Robert Cohen-Pool/Getty Images)
Lesley McSpadden is comforted during the funeral services for her son Michael Brown on Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. Hundreds of people gathered to say goodbye to Brown, who was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer on Aug. 9. The more than two weeks since Michael Brown's death have been marked by nightly protests, some violent and chaotic, although tensions have eased in recent days. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post Dispatch, Robert Cohen, Pool)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: People raise their arms during the funeral of Michael Brown inside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Richard Perry-Pool/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Photos surround the casket of Michael Brown inside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church awaiting the start of his funeral on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis Missouri. Michael Brown,18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by a Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Richard Perry-Pool/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: People gather for the funeral of Michael Brown inside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis Missouri. Michael Brown,18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by a Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Robert Cohen-Pool/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: A man reacts during funeral services for Michael Brown at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Robert Cohen-Pool/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: The casket leaves the church at the funeral of Michael Brown at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Richard Perry-Pool/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Michael Brown, Sr., father of Michael Brown holding young girl, heads into Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church for the funeral of his son on Monday, August 25, 2014, in St. Louis, MO. Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American male, was fatally gunned down by a White police officer, Darren Wilson, on August 9 in Ferguson, MO. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Guests wait in line to enter the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church for the funeral of Michael Brown on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, walks from her son's grave following a service at Saint Peters Cemetery on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: A hearse sits in front of the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church for the funeral of Michael Brown on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Guests wait in line to enter the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church for the funeral of Michael Brown on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: A family member wearing a shirt bearing a photo of Michael Brown, heads into Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church for the funeral of Michael Brown on Monday, August 25, 2014, in St. Louis, MO. Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American male, was fatally gunned down by a White police officer, Darren Wilson, on August 9 in Ferguson, MO. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The funeral procession for Michael Brown heads to the St. Peters Cemetery in Normandy, Mo., Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. Brown, who is black, was unarmed when he was shot in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 9 by Officer Darren Wilson, who is white. Protesters took to the streets of the St. Louis suburb night after night, calling for change and drawing national attention to issues surrounding race and policing. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
ST LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Guests wait in line to enter the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church for the funeral of Michael Brown on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FOR USE AS DESIRED, YEAR END PHOTOS - FILE - Michael Brown Sr. yells out as the casket is lowered during the funeral service for his son Michael Brown in Normandy, Mo., Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. Hundreds of people gathered to say goodbye to Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot and killed Aug. 9 in a confrontation with a police officer that fueled almost two weeks of street protests. (AP Photo/New York Times, Richard Perry, File Pool)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Rev. Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson touch the casket during the funeral for Michael Brown at St. Peters Cemetery on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Richard Perry-Pool/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Under a crush of mourners and media the remains of Michael Brown are loaded into a hearse following his funeral services at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18 year-old unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. His death caused several days of violent protests along with rioting and looting in Ferguson. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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By CONNIE CASS and JESSE J. HOLLAND

WASHINGTON (AP) - Eric Holder talks about the nation's civil rights struggles in a way no previous U.S. attorney general could - by telling his own family story.

As he increasingly pushes his Justice Department to protect voting rights and end unfair prison sentences and police brutality, Holder has drawn on personal history to make the case that the nation has much work to do to achieve justice for all. It's a legacy he'll likely draw on when he travels Wednesday to Ferguson, Missouri, to supervise the federal investigation of the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer.

Holder tells how his father, an immigrant from Barbados proudly wearing his World War II uniform, was ejected from a whites-only train car. How his future sister-in-law, escorted by U.S. marshals, integrated the University of Alabama in spite of a governor who stood in the schoolhouse door to block her. How as a college student, he was twice pulled over, his car searched, even though he wasn't speeding.

And Holder recalls that the slaying of black teen Trayvon Martin in 2012 prompted him to sit down with his own 15-year-old son for a talk about the way a young black male must act and speak if confronted by police - the same talk his father had given him decades earlier.

"I had to do this to protect my boy," the nation's first black attorney general said at an NAACP convention last year.

President Barack Obama is sending Holder to Ferguson to bring the full weight of the federal government into the investigation of the death of another young black man, Michael Brown, who was unarmed when a white police officer shot him multiple times Aug. 9. Daily and nightly protests, sometimes marred by rioting and looting and met with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets from police, have rocked the suburban St. Louis community since.

In an open letter published late Tuesday on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website, Holder promised a thorough investigation into the Brown shooting while calling for "an end to the acts of violence in the streets of Ferguson."

"The Justice Department will defend the right of protesters to peacefully demonstrate and for the media to cover a story that must be told," Holder wrote. "But violence cannot be condoned. I urge the citizens of Ferguson who have been peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to join with law enforcement in condemning the actions of looters, vandals and others seeking to inflame tensions and sow discord."

Holder has led an unusually fast and aggressive Justice Department response to the local case, sending teams of prosecutors and dozens of FBI agents to investigate and arranging a federal autopsy on top of one by local authorities.

Still, protesters in the streets say they aren't convinced justice will be done. Holder's record on civil rights and personal commitment may help reassure the community when he visits.

"It's a powerful message," said William Yeomans, a law school fellow at American University who worked in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division for more than two decades. "He's the embodiment of law enforcement, and the positive contribution he can make here is to assure the community that the federal government is taking very seriously the quest for justice in this incident."

Holder reinvigorated a civil rights force at Justice, Yeomans said, that had been scaled back and demoralized during President George W. Bush's administration.

Holder's department has been especially strong in going after police misconduct, both through criminal civil rights cases and lawsuits against police departments, Yeomans said.

His civil rights push got off to a difficult start, however.

Shortly after taking office in February 2009, Holder called the United States "a nation of cowards" when it comes to talking about race in a Black History Month speech. Conservative backlash was swift. Holder quickly toned down his rhetoric while quietly rebuilding the division.

For much of Holder's early tenure, his public profile was shaped by battles over how to prosecute terror cases, the use of armed drones to kill terror suspects overseas and his handling of various Obama administration controversies. A 2012 vote in the Republican-controlled House made Holder the first sitting Cabinet member ever held in contempt of Congress over his refusal to hand over without preconditions documents involving the Fast and Furious gun investigation.

More than a dozen Republican lawmakers have called for his impeachment for not prosecuting anyone in the Internal Revenue Service for targeting conservative groups and for his department's probes of journalists linked to news leaks.

But over the last three years, civil rights has moved to the forefront, starting with Holder's opposition to state voter ID laws that make it harder for the poor to cast ballots. He compared Texas' voter ID law to a poll tax, the now-illegal fees imposed across the South for decades to block African-Americans from voting. The Justice Department is now suing Texas and North Carolina over their voting restrictions.

"Over the past three years, the department's Civil Rights Division has filed more criminal civil rights cases than during any other period in its history - including record numbers of hate-crimes cases," Holder noted in April.

Holder has indicated he's unlikely to stay on as attorney general through the end of Obama's second term, but says he has more to accomplish before departing. That may partly explain his accelerated push for equal treatment under the law.

He has worked on easing mandatory sentences, especially for nonviolent drug offenses that have a disproportionate impact on black men.

Holder ordered his prosecutors to stop charging many drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences, pushed a U.S. Sentencing Commission proposal to lower guideline penalties and backed legislation to give judges more discretion in sentencing.

"This focused reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable," he said in March, "it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate."

He used the Martin killing two years ago to criticize "stand your ground" gun laws in states like Florida. The Justice Department is investigating the 17-year-old's death but has yet to say if it will file federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who said he killed Martin in self-defense and was acquitted in a state trial.

Holder even partnered with the Education Department to try to change the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline," where minority children - especially black students - are suspended and expelled at a rate that's three times higher than that of white children.

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AP writers Pete Yost and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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Follow Connie Cass and Jesse J. Holland on Twitter athttp://www.twitter.com/conniecass andhttp://www.twitter.com/jessejholland

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