Thelton Henderson remembers MLK: ‘An incredibly brave man’

“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,” says renowned civil rights lawyer and judge Thelton Henderson, speaking of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at UC Berkeley

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on the steps of Sproul Plaza in 1967. (Photo by Ron Riesterer)

Henderson was talking with Savala Trepczynski, the executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at Berkeley Law, for a podcast series Be the Change. Henderson worked alongside King in Alabama, during the Civil Rights Movement. During the interview, he recalls a moment when he saw a side of the leader that the public never got to see.

“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

Thelton Henderson (Berkeley Law photo)

“He was irreplaceable and yet, he was a human being,” says Trepczynski. “In a way, it means none of us are allowed to simply opt out because we don’t think that we’re exceptional enough to complete the task ahead of us.”

In October of 1966, Henderson, then working as a lawyer in Oakland, wrote a letter to King asking him to speak at a civil rights symposium at UC Berkeley.

Martin Luther King Jr. at Berkeley

Martin Luther King Jr. at UC Berkeley in 1967. (Photo by Helen Nestor)

“Having seen your work,” he wrote, “it would be impossible for me to underestimate your heavy workload, or the pressure under which you work. Therefore, I sincerely hope that I do not seem insensitive to these things when I ask if there is any date free on your schedule between the second week of January and the last week of March, 1967, to speak in our program. Even though you may only be able to appear long enough to make the speech, and hold a short question-and-answer period thereafter, this would be most satisfactory.”

Although King wasn’t able to speak at the symposium, he did respond to Henderson’s request. On May 17, 1967, King delivered a powerful speech against the Vietnam War before a crowd of 7,000 that packed Sproul Plaza.

Listen to Henderson’s interview about King on Be the Change.

Read about a historic photo, taken by Helen Nestor, of King during his 1967 speech at UC Berkeley.

Learn more about Berkeley Law alumnus Thelton Henderson, the first African American lawyer to work in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, who spent nearly 40 years as a federal judge.