Renowned civil rights lawyer Thelton Henderson to mentor at Berkeley Law

Judge Thelton Henderson — a renowned civil rights lawyer who spent nearly 40 years as a federal judge — is returning to his alma mater, Berkeley Law, this time as a mentor, teacher and adviser.

Thelton Henderson

Thelton Henderson is returning to Berkeley Law, this time as a mentor. (Berkeley Law photo)

Henderson, who graduated from Berkeley Law in 1962 and retired from the bench last month, says his new position on campus is a natural transition. “It fits perfectly with what I’m passionate about: working with students and helping young people find their path… Mentorship is important to me because it was important for me.”

Henderson’s legacy is far-reaching and his accomplishments diverse. He was the first African American lawyer at the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the early 1960s. He’s been instrumental in outlawing sexual harassment in California. His ruling led to the state adopting restrictions in its use of solitary confinement and creating a better health care system for inmates. His environmental rulings have saved dolphins from the tuna industry and are credited with making the Bay Area the only place in the country that meets the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Two decades ago, Berkeley Law opened the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice in response to the passage of Proposition 209, the 1996 state ballot measure that barred affirmative action in public universities. The center serves to ensure that “conversations about power, privilege, race, gender and class are always part of life and learning at Berkeley Law.”

Savala Trepcyznski

Savala Trepcyznski is the executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley.

At a retirement dinner for Henderson last week, it was announced that a new fellowship, also in his name, will provide summer employment funding each year for Berkeley Law students to engage in otherwise unpaid racial justice work.

“This fellowship keeps faith with all the Henderson Center has stood for since its inception,” said Savala Trepczynski, the center’s executive director. “It serves the greater community, and indeed the nation, as we grapple with racial equity. And it honors Judge Henderson’s legacy as a champion for social justice.”

Trepcyznski, who graduated from Berkeley Law in 2011, says as director, she’s guided by the incredible work of Judge Henderson. “I want the Henderson Center to help every single Berkeley Law student to develop their conviction that social justice is an integral part of the law, and that the law is an integral part of social justice.” She interviewed Henderson for the center’s summer podcast series, Be the Change. (Listen to the interview below.)

During the interview, Henderson, who served as an adviser for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, recalls a time he saw a different side of King.

“We all know him. That voice — the way he can inspire you… But I saw another side of him that showed me how hard his task really was,” he tells Trepczynski. “He had a big press conference coming up — press from all over the country was there… We were in his room. He was in his undershirt, and he was dead tired… and finally, Andy Young came into the room and said, ‘Okay, Mike’ — he called him Mike — ‘It’s time to go.’ He sort of pulled himself up, went into the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face, put on a shirt. Then he went out there and became the Martin Luther King — the one you always see… Just an incredibly brave man with the leadership that I wish we had today that I think is missing.”

Thelton Henderson

Henderson signs copies of his book, Breaking New Ground, at his retirement party. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

As a “distinguished visitor” at Berkeley Law, Henderson will hold office hours with students, co-teach parts of classes, act as an adviser on the school’s various social justice projects and assist in writing amicus briefs.

“I really enjoy interacting with law students,” he said. “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.”

Read more about Henderson’s legacy on the Berkeley Law website.