HOUSTON -- Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday he opposes a new photo ID requirement in Texas elections because it would be harmful to minority voters.
In remarks to the NAACP in Houston, the attorney general said the Justice Department "will not allow political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious right."
Under the law passed in Texas, Holder said that "many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them – and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them."
"We call those poll taxes," Holder added spontaneously, drawing applause as he moved away from the original text of his speech with a reference to a fee used in some Southern states after slavery's abolition to disenfranchise black people.
The 24th amendment to the constitution made that type of tax illegal.
Holder spoke a day after a trial started in federal court in Washington over the 2011 law passed by Texas' GOP-dominated Legislature that requires voters to show photo identification when they get to the polls.
Under Texas' law, Holder noted, a concealed handgun license would serve as acceptable ID to vote, but a student ID would not. He went on to say that while only 8 percent of white people do not have government-issued photo IDs, about 25 percent of black people lack such identification.
"I don't know what will happen as this case moves forward, but I can assure you that the Justice Department's efforts to uphold and enforce voting rights will remain aggressive," the attorney general said.
Holder said the arc of American history has always moved toward expanding the electorate and that "we will simply not allow this era to be the beginning of the reversal of that historic progress."
"I will not allow that to happen," he added.
The attorney general spoke at the 103rd convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which is launching a battle against new state voter ID laws. NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous has likened the fight against conservative-backed voter ID laws passed in several states to "Selma and Montgomery times," referring to historic Alabama civil rights confrontations of the mid-1960s.
Holder, the first black man named U.S. Attorney General, was received with resounding applause, a standing ovation and chants of "Holder, Holder, Holder" at the convention.
Those chants quickly changed to "stand your ground, stand your ground," a reference to a Florida law that neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman is using to defend fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager he encountered while patrolling his community in February. Police did not initially arrest or charge Zimmerman, saying the "stand your ground" law allowed self-defense. He was later charged with second-degree murder.
Holder said the Justice Department under his leadership has taken unprecedented steps to study and prevent violence against youth and address the high homicide rate among young black men.
Finally, the attorney general noted with pride that the U.S. Supreme Court in two recent rulings regarding President Barack Obama's health care law and immigration laws passed in Arizona, largely supported the federal government and the Department of Justice. However, he said, he remained concerned that Arizona law enforcement, under the portion of the law upheld by the court, would be able to check the immigration status of any person suspected of being in the United States illegally.
"No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like," Holder said.
Yost reported from Washington.