The second day of the five-day convention featured a "Newsmaker" session Thursday with Holder and digital-media mogul Arianna Huffington, who both stressed the media's role in the lives, achievements, and struggles of African American communities.
In his remarks, Holder described the founding of the organization 38 years ago by a handful of black journalists, many from Philadelphia, as "a simple idea, but a transformative moment."
"Those of us with a few gray hairs and receding hairlines," said Holder, 60 - using the familiar quote of Acel Moore, an NABJ cofounder, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, and Inquirer editor emeritus - "can recall a time when, if you read a newspaper, the only black people mentioned were entertainers and criminals. Black people never died. Black people never got married. They were unremarkable. But the picture that was being painted was not an accurate picture. It wasn't a true story."
Those frustrations, Holder said, inspired the organization to go national in 1975, in an effort "to ensure that the full American story was told."
Holder encouraged those at the event to continue in that mission.
"Without your work," he said, "we would not have a starting point for progress - or, in many cases, for the pursuit of justice."
Holder said journalists are uniquely positioned "to help focus our national dialogue not on just those issues that occupy our 24-hour news cycle, but that really matter, on the challenges that will really determine our nation's future, and on the struggles that we quite simply cannot afford to ignore."
He urged them to question why the majority of children in the United States have been exposed to "crime, abuse, and violence," making them vulnerable to negative behaviors; why, on the average, black and Hispanic 12th graders are reading on the same level as white eighth graders; and why for black males 15 to 24, homicide is the leading cause of death.
In a question-and-answer session, Holder touched on items including his forthcoming meeting with 9/11 families affected by the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal, saying, "I hope to reassure them we are taking the investigation seriously."
On why his department this year declined to investigate the possibility that there were additional suspects in the assassination of civil rights leader Malcolm X, Holder cited "limited resources" and a "very small possibility" of unearthing evidence for federal prosecution.
He said ferreting out racial discrimination in public agencies is a priority of the Justice Department.
Huffington, cofounder of the Huffington Post, echoed the convention's theme. For many, she lamented, "the American Dream has become a game of chance," and "upward mobility is becoming a joke."
With her new AOL/Black Voices venture, Huffington said, she aims to tell stories about African Americans that "capture people's hearts and imagination."
"Throughout history," she said, "that's how we've changed everything."
Contact staff writer Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601, firstname.lastname@example.org, or twitter@kiagregory.