Judge Thelton Henderson ’62 is an almost mythical figure at Berkeley Law. The first African-American lawyer at the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the early 1960s, he faced dangerous, racially charged situations while confronting unjust voting-rights practices in the Deep South. A trusted advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., he opened a legal aid office, helped diversify law schools, and spent 37 years as a federal judge.
This school year, after retiring from the bench, Henderson returned to his alma mater as a distinguished visitor. He offers students wisdom, insights, and career advice, co-teaches parts of classes, and advises the school’s social justice center— which is named after him.
“Thelton Henderson is an institution and a hero here at Berkeley,” says Professor David Oppenheimer, a Henderson Center co-faculty director. “We’re thrilled that he wanted to enrich our community in this way.”
Center Executive Director Savala Trepczynski ’11 notes that law students typically have regular, instructive contact with a judge only during an externship or clerkship. “Now, they can learn from, and work alongside, an extraordinary jurist who also happens to be an affable and generous man,” she says.
Henderson, 84, enjoyed a natural transition after similar engagements with more than 70 of his law clerks over the years.
“Mentorship is important to me because it was important for me,” he says. “I love interacting with law students. I tell them, ‘Don’t think I was born into a black robe. There were lots of twists and turns before that happened.’ I like to remind them of the many paths to a gratifying career, and help them find what suits them best.”