"In respect of civil rights," wrote Justice John Harlan, "all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful."
Well, at least that's so on paper.
In reality, it's not true for the penniless, for the working poor and transient, for those marginalized over skin color, religion, nationality, disability or sexual orientation.
That is, unless people step up to make it true – people with innards of iron and hides titanium-tough, people like Eric Holder.
I dare say Holder will go down as the most reviled attorney general in our history, and for one thing only: No one has ever so challenged power on behalf of the powerless.
Whether against voter suppression, against police brutality and profiling, against discrimination of all kinds, Holder, beheld with great bloodlust by the Fox News set, has done more than any predecessor to adhere to the first 14 words of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.
Let's acknowledge that in taking office with the Obama administration, Holder had a low bar to clear in the area of civil rights. Under George W. Bush, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department was a devil's playground.
Yes, Holder vs. Alberto Gonzales is an unfair fight. Oh, my. Compare Holder instead to Robert Kennedy. Again, no contest.
Kennedy would show great compassion and courage ultimately, but as attorney general, he was ultra-cautious in the face of unfathomable oppression in the South. By contrast, when Holder hit the ground, he wasn't running. He was digging in against injustice.
A year into office, he sued Arizona over a law that essentially had codified the profiling of brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking people in the name of immigration enforcement.
In challenging state bans on same-sex marriage, Holder and his boss have done more for the rights of gays and lesbians than any duo in history.
Whereas too often attorneys general have played to the law-and-order crowd in the face of overzealous police acts, Holder has been steadfast in speaking up for the individual who has no nightstick, no Taser at his disposal.
Holder also has offered a counterpoint to the increasingly punitive way we treat juvenile offenders. He recently announced an initiative to reduce the incarceration of children and to start getting ahead of whatever problems await them beyond adolescence.
But the area where Holder has been boldest and most needed is in voting rights. There, he has been a guard against politically motivated voter-suppression efforts that have the marks and motivations of the poll taxes and literacy tests of a bygone age.
When the Supreme Court tossed out Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Holder resolved to hold states' feet to the fire when voter I.D. laws disproportionately affected minorities. He subsequently sued North Carolina and Texas on those very grounds.
Amid all this, Holder, like the president himself, has endured what Urban League president Mark Morial called "nasty, unfair, spurious attacks." To that, we must observe that Morial clearly understates. It was the same and worse, of course, when Martin Luther King Jr. set out to challenge the conscience of a nation.
Shirley Chisholm, this nation's first black congresswoman, said, "Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth." It can be said that while members of Congress have occupied suits and suites, biding their time between elections and recesses, the hyper-proactive Holder has been paying his rent.
Upon Holder's announcement that he will retire once a successor is in place, Sen. Ted Cruz said Republicans should block interminably any successor Obama should nominate.
I'm trying to think why this should bother me. Those who like to see justice translated from paper to reality should be happy to not let Holder leave for two more years.
Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.