ORLANDO, Fla. — In an impassioned and at times deeply personal speech, the nation's first black attorney general vowed Tuesday to investigate the "tragic and unnecessary" death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in nearby Sanford and called on the country to address racial injustice he and his family had experienced firsthand.
Eric H. Holder Jr. told delegates to the NAACP convention here of his father sitting him down years ago to advise him how to deal with the police — "what to say and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I thought was unwarranted."
"I'm sure my father felt certain at the time that my parents' generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children," Holder said.
Although a lot has changed since then — witness his service in the administration of the country's first black president — Holder said that "recent events demonstrate that we still have much more work to do, and much further to go."
"The news of Trayvon Martin's death last year, and the discussions that have taken place since then, reminded me of my father's words so many years ago. And they brought me back to a number of experiences I had as a young man," Holder said.
He described two experiences of being racially profiled: being pulled over by police and searched on the New Jersey Turnpike when he wasn't speeding, and later being stopped by a police officer in Washington "while simply running to a catch a movie."
"I was, at the time of that last incident, a federal prosecutor," Holder told the crowd, some of whom applauded or called out, "That's right — that's it right there."
Martin's fatal shooting on Feb. 26, 2012, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, prompted Holder to talk to his 15-year-old son as his father had to him.
"This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy," Holder said.
"I am his father and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways," he said.
Holder said that after Zimmerman's acquittal Saturday, his department remained committed to investigating Martin's death, and that he was also determined to pursue a national dialogue on the thorny issues of race and profiling.
Holder called on Americans to "confront the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and unfortunate stereotypes that serve too often as the basis for police action and private judgments."
The audience of several thousand people, mostly black, gave Holder a standing ovation. A number left with tears in their eyes.
Frances Brisbane of Medford, N.Y., cried openly. Dean of the School of Social Welfare at the State University of New York at Stonybrook, she said she appreciated Holder speaking personally about race.
"He's one of us — he knows when his people are hurting," she said, adding, "He spoke to us from the heart as a black man who came up through this."
John-Wesley Walker Jr., 47, of Columbia, S.C., said fathers in his family shared the same sad tradition of advising sons on how to deal with police.
Walker, whose wife is an associate dean at the University of South Carolina School of Law, has heard Holder speak a dozen times, often mentioning personal stories, but not in such a public forum on behalf of the administration.
Now, Walker said, "they've lost that fear of reelection and they're thinking about legacy."
Benjamin Jealous, leader of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said that he was encouraged to hear Holder speak so personally about the case, and that he had faith the department would pursue justice for the Martin family.
"The reality is our fears for our children are well-founded," Jealous said.
He said he discussed the Martin case with his 7-year-old daughter for the first time on Monday, knowing it had been on her mind.
"I told my daughter that her father was doing everything he could to make sure we get justice for Trayvon Martin and that there are no more Trayvon Martins in this country," Jealous said.
He said he had also talked about the case with youth at the convention, including his 15-year-old nephew, advising him on how to dress and talk.
"It's hard to tell him you have to be timid about asserting your freedom," Jealous said.
Elaine Simelton, 59, a real estate agent from Huntsville, Ala., said Holder's comments struck a chord with her not just as a black woman, but as a wife and mother.
"He could relate as an African American parent that our children shouldn't be in fear walking the streets of America," Simelton said, tearing up. "We have to feel in this country it's justice for all."