By Ken A. Epstein
Federal Judge Thelton Henderson might have become a professional athlete rather than a history making champion of equal justice had it not been for an injury on the
“Law school was an easy decision for me,” Henderson said. “My mother, who cleaned people’s houses (in Los Angles), said I was going to be somebody, a doctor or a lawyer.
“My mother made me take academic courses (in high school) such as science, math and English,” he said. “When I went to college, my primary goal was to be a great football star,” but those dreams endedwhen he hurt his knee at a Cal game.
He went on to become one of two Black students at Berkeley Law (formerly Bolt Law School) and the first African American lawyer in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he worked in the South with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Henderson was speaking last Saturday at the “Law Needs You,” a symposium for Black students who are considering law as a career, sponsored by the Charles Houston Bar Association, a Bay Areaorganization of Black legal professionals, and Berkeley Law, which hosted the day’s event.
Attending the symposium were mostly university level students and a handful of high school students, who went to sessions where they networked with practicing attorneys, learned about how to apply to law school and about the personal experiences of prominent lawyers.
Speakers included Christopher Edley, Jr., dean of Berkeley Law; Eva Jefferson Patterson, president and co-founder of the Equal Justice Society; Jacque Wilson, San Francisco deputy public defender, and Martin Jenkins, justice of the State Court of Appeals, First Appellate District.
Judge Charles Smiley, Alameda County Superior Court, told students that Black participation in the legal system is a key element of justice. “Access to the courts is fundamental,” he said. “Without access to the courts, you don’t have any rights.”
Henderson in his remarks explained how his experiences in the South in the 1960s shaped his legal philosophy. “I found myself at the very eye of the civil rights hurricane,” he said. “It was sometimes a dangerous job…(and) it was a fascinating job. It was one that formed me. It was one that shaped my personal vision of justice and fairness in our society.”
Selected by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 to sit in the Northern District of California, he was the only African-American judge on that court for 10 years. He was selected as its first black Chief Judge in 1990 and served in that post
He is currently in the news for his work to reform the Oakland Police Department and the ongoing possibility of putting the department under federal control.
His work also included halting the slaughter of dolphins by the tuna fishing industry, striking down California ‘s controversial anti-affirmative action initiative and a recent decision placing the California prison health care system
under federal receivership.
For more information on the Charles Houston Bar Association go to www.charleshoustonbar. org/