SALT LAKE CITY — Despite what the nation has achieved in advancing civil rights, the work of empowering all Americans remains incomplete, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday.
"Yes, we have a great deal to celebrate," he said. "But let's be clear. We have not yet reached the promised land."
Holder was the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Humans Rights Foundation luncheon attended by a capacity crowd of about 800 people at the Sheraton Hotel. He marveled at the turnout, given that a local newspaper columnist suggested event organizers wouldn't be able to fill the ballroom.
"Some guy wrote that we weren't going to be able to fill this room, is that right?" he said. "Crud, man, what's this all about?"
After his brief remarks, Holder met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Church spokesman Scott Trotter described it as a courtesy visit.
Holder also spent time with recently appointed U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow and his staff.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff called Holder's first visit to Utah a historic moment. Of the four or five U.S. attorneys general he has worked with over the years, Shurtleff said Holder has been the most accessible.
Holder also expressed admiration for Shurtleff.
"He is more of what we need in this country," he said of the Utah Republican. "He has become a good friend."
Since Holder took office in February 2009, Shurtleff has had several meetings with him and his chief deputies on issues such as the college football Bowl Championship Series, illegal immigration, mortgage fraud and Internet safety. The Department of Justice sued the state in November over its illegal immigration enforcement law.
Holder, who had never been to Utah, said he'd heard it has good skiing, but it's something he won't experience. He recalled spending a day on his "keister" learning how to "ski board." He said he would come back to the state, "but never to ski."
In his speech, Holder recalled King traveling from Atlanta to Salt Lake City in January 1961 to to spread his message of hope and unity and sound his call for change.
Speaking at the University of Utah, King brought news from the South, saying that despite powerful opposition, "segregation was crumbling" and the movement to ensure "first-rate citizenship" was taking hold.
"In many ways, this was the dawn of the civil rights era — just before sit-ins, freedom rides, ballot drives and protest marches began to sweep the nation," Holder said. "But for those who welcomed him on this trip to Utah, it was clear the Dr. King already could see the promised land."
Holder said he realizes the he and President Barack Obama are direct beneficiaries of the civil rights movement.
But even today — after many decades of struggle — in some of America's most vibrant and prosperous cities it cannot be denied that there are communities where the doors to learning and job opportunities remain firmly closed and the promise of equal justice is unfulfilled, he said.
Though it won't be easy, Holder said, everyone has the responsibility to take up the unfinished struggle for equal opportunity and justice.