In a speech before hundreds at a Roosevelt church, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Sunday called on African-Americans to stage what he called a "spiritual reawakening" to confront violence, poverty and other social ills that disproportionately affect the black community.
In particular, Holder, a Queens native, singled out absent black fathers, who he said failed to live up to their parental responsibilities, eroding the family unit.
"Too many men in the black community have created children and left them to be raised by caring mothers. These women do a wonderful job, but we ask too much of them and too little of our men," Holder, an African-American, said to a crowd of more than 400 people at Memorial Presbyterian Church on Baldwin Turnpike. "It should simply be unacceptable for a man to have a child and then not play an integral party in the raising and nurturing of the child."
Holder's comments echoed those in a controversial speech by Barack Obama on Father's Day 2008, when the then-presidential candidate said "too many fathers" are "missing from too many lives and too many homes."
At the church Sunday, Holder was himself among family. His younger brother, William, a church elder, introduced him while their mother, Miriam, watched from a pew.
Holder did not touch on domestic policy issues, but a group of 50 to 75 protesters outside the church criticized his role in the Obama administration's decision to try accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators in federal court in Manhattan.
"We feel very strongly that terrorists shouldn't have constitutional rights that American citizens have," Phil Orenstein, 61, of Queens Village, said as he stood in a light rain, holding an American flag poster. "These are terrorists who have no allegiance to the rule of law or to our Constitution or to the Geneva Convention."
The Rev. Reginald Tuggle, pastor of the predominantly African-American parish, said later, "This is not a political rally. This is a worship service."
Tuggle had responded to questions about the pickets at the outset of the Sunday morning service. "I know we have some protesters across the street and that's OK, that's what America's about," Tuggle said.
Holder's remarks centered on the importance of inculcating in children values like "respect, restraint, responsibility and hard work" to foster healthy and safe communities, as well as tackling material inequalities. In underscoring the urgency, Holder cited statistics showing that the leading cause of death in black males 15 to 24 is homicide. "It is not enough to pray," he said. "We must act."
Julius O. Pearse, a civil rights pioneer who broke the color line in Freeport's Police Department, said he agreed with Holder's remarks "120 percent."
Pearse added that he disagreed with pickets on the military tribunals issue. "People are afraid that in an open court, where they don't have a bridle on the media, that certain things will come out about the illegal operations that went on as far as torture is concerned," Pearse said.
Sergio Argueta, executive director of the Hempstead gang-intervention nonprofit group Struggling to Reunite Our New Generation, attended the service in part to ask Holder to review the pending federal case against Alex Sanchez, a leader of a gang intervention organization in Los Angeles who is accused of managing narcotics for MS-13.
"Alex exemplifies everything Holder spoke of," Argueta said.