In a televised interview for MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry Show” that aired on Sunday, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder discussed his tenure as top lawyer, highlighting his triumphs (national security and civil rights) and what he described as his “single failure” (gun control). But in a separate interview, conducted exclusively for ESSENCE, Holder honed in on a topic closer to home—the African-American women who’ve influenced him most throughout his life. 

“Miriam Holder, my mother, a high school graduate, denied the opportunity to go to college,” said Holder. “But was extremely well-read. [She] always taught me to fight for justice, to assume the best about people, but be prepared to take on people who would do things in a negative way.”

Holder also mentioned Myrlie Evers, civil rights activist and widow of Medgar Evers, Coretta Scott King, Constance Baker Motley, who served Manhattan as borough president and was also a prominent judge, activist and state senator, and Dr. Maya Angelou, after whom his eldest daughter is named. The attorney general goes on to acknowledge his sister-in-law, Vivian Malone Jones, who was one of the first Black students to attend the University of Alabama in 1963. “You know, people tend to focus on that one day when Vivian integrated the University of Alabama and don’t focus on the two years where she lived under the threats… She had protection the whole time,” Holder said. 

Switching gears to domestic violence, Holder was firm in naming the epidemic a men’s issue. “There’s no need to bifurcate this. Women do not invite the violence that they have to deal with,” he said. “But we have to make women comfortable in reporting these things. We have to erase the stigma that exists around women who are victimized in a sexual way.”

Holder will vacate his position after more than six years in March, when his successor Loretta Lynch is largely expected to be confirmed.