Hon. Thelton E. Henderson
In This Section
"Judge Henderson's name is synonymous with the highest principles of the law-civility, compassion and a recognition of human dignity." - Mary Louise Frampton, Director, Henderson Center for Social Justice
From his earliest years growing up in Watts, Thelton Henderson's mother convinced him that he was going to be somebody in the world. Henderson went to UC Berkeley on a football scholarship, but a knee injury ended his football career and focused his energies on academics. One of only two African-American students in the Boalt Hall class of 1962, Thelton started his legal career as the first black attorney at the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice. He went South to investigate voting rights abuses and soon confronted the challenge of being a black man in authority within the largely white world of the American legal system. He became a bridge between the Kennedy Justice Department and the leaders of the civil rights movement whom he came to know when they were all forced to lodge in the same segregated motels throughout the South. As a young lawyer and a representative of the federal government, Henderson grappled with many tough choices, including the decision to loan his car to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. one fateful night, a crucial act which ultimately cost him his job.
Returning to California , Henderson became the first legal aid attorney in East Palo Alto once again forging a new path. Distressed to learn that neigboring Stanford Law School had only graduated its first black attorney in 1968, Thelton became its Assistant Dean in charge of recruiting students of color. When he left Stanford in 1976 to practice law, twenty percent of the entering class were students of color and Henderson 's program became a nationwide model. While Henderson was in private practice with partners Sandy Rosen and Joe Remcho and teaching at Golden Gate Law School , he was nominated to the federal bench. Selected by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 to sit in the Northern District of California, Thelton Henderson became the only African-American judge on that court for ten years. He was selected as its first black Chief Judge in 1990 and served in that post until 1997.
Throughout his distinguished career on the federal bench, Judge Henderson has ruled upon many of the most critical and difficult issues of our time. From halting the slaughter of dolphins by the tuna fishing industry, to striking down California 's controversial affirmative action initiative, to his recent decision placing the California prison health care system under federal receivorship, Thelton Henderson has demonstrated his conviction that the U.S. Constitution belongs to everyone.
Henderson has been an active member of the Boalt Hall alumni community, hosting welcome events at his home for incoming students, presiding at swearing-in ceremonies for new lawyers, and serving on the Center for Social Justice Advisory Council. He has also been instrumental in guiding programs for disadvantaged students at the UC Berkeley undergraduate level.
We have inaugurated the Thelton Henderson Center for Social Justice at Boalt Hall, we've done so in the spirit of its namesake, a man who embodies the essence of social justice in his work, his community, and his dreams. Many thanks to all of you who have helped make this dream of the Thelton Henderson Center for Social Justice come true.