Earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. had intimated his intended departure as the head of the Department of Justice, and last Thursday afternoon he made it official.

Holder, 63, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, said, “I will leave the Department of Justice, but I will never leave the work … I have loved the Department of Justice ever since I was a young boy and watched Robert Kennedy, who, during the Civil Rights Movement, showed that the department can and must always be a force for that which is right.”

After five-and-half years—one of the longest terms of any member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet—Holder, in an interview, said he would leave the Justice Department as soon as his successor is confirmed. That process could take him through the rest of the year and possibly into 2015.

His resignation comes as no surprise to the president. They had discussed this eventuality several times, and it was apparently finalized in a meeting over the Labor Day weekend at the White House.

Obama said that since he took office, the overall crime rate and incarceration rate have gone down, facts he attributed to Holder. “This is the first time they have declined together in over 40 years,” he added.

Why Holder chose to announce his departure at this time is left to conjecture, although it has been rumored that he wanted to leave now lest it be more difficult later.

His tenure in office, from the controversy of his decision to try the accused in the 9/11 bombing within a stone’s throw of the World Trade Center (a decision he reversed) to the recent tragedy in Ferguson, Mo., has not been a smooth or easy one. But he has been resourceful and adamant in upholding most of the heated issues that have crossed his desk.

“There has been no greater ally in the fight for justice, civil rights, equal rights and voting rights than Attorney General Holder,” Myrlie Evers, chair of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute, said in an email. “As a fierce consequential leader on the right to the vote, the attorney general has worked tirelessly to ensure that every American has the right, the ability and the opportunity to cast their vote and let their voice be heard.”

She added that Holder “never shied away from the issues that greatly affected us all.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network said that Holder’s resignation was one met with pride and disappointment by the civil rights community. “We are proud that he has been the best attorney general on civil rights in U.S. history and disappointed because he leaves at a critical time when we need his continued diligence most,” said Sharpton.

Sharpton, who has been unwaveringly immersed in two highly publicized cases of police misconduct, added, “We are engaged in immediate conversations with the White House on deliberations over a successor whom we hope will continue in the general direction of Attorney General Holder. His accomplishments in working to protect Americans from terrorism …challenging unfair sentencing, directing U.S. attorneys on fair prosecution and being the only attorney general to visit the site of a civil rights complaint in Ferguson must be noted in American history.”

It will be noted that Holder was the fourth-longest tenured attorney general in the nation’s history. He was not afraid to voice his concerns about the country as a whole on the issue of racial tensions, declaring, “We are a nation of cowards.

He was often the whipping boy for attacks aimed at Obama, particularly from adversaries on the right. But none of the attacks dissuaded him from stepping into the breach of highly charged issues, such as same-sex marriage, marijuana and immigration reform. He did not run and hide during the “Fast and Furious” gun-trafficking fiasco and withstood the GOP’s attempt to hold him in contempt for refusing to hand over documents about the incident.

“I hope that I have done honor to the faith you have placed in me, Mr. President, and to the legacy of all of those who have served before me,” Holder said toward the close of his brief remarks.

According to some sources close to the office, Solicitor General Don Verrilli is among the leading candidates to succeed Holder, but there is also talk about Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. All three are greatly respected by Obama and members of the Justice Department.

As for Holder’s next move, a few insiders think he will return to the law firm of Covington & Burling, where he once represented a number of corporate clients.

Wherever he lands, folks in the civil rights community have expressed how much they will miss him, but “we wish him Godspeed,” said Evers.