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“I’ve seen a huge capacity for redemption from people… if given a chance.” That’s Thelton Henderson, a renowned civil rights lawyer who spent 37 years as a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, in conversation with Savala Trepczynski in a 2017 podcast series, Be the Change.
Be the Change was created and hosted by Trepczynski, the executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at Berkeley Law. The series highlights people who Trepcyznski says “embody, and therefore model, a progressive and subversively compassionate way of being a human being.”
Henderson, who was one of two Black students to graduate from Berkeley Law in 1962, was the first African American lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the early 1960s. In the interview, he shares what it was like working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists, investigating local law enforcement and human rights abuses.
“There are memories that will stay with me forever, and I think also have influenced my own subsequent behavior in life,” he tells Trepczynski. “One of the things I remember most was just the sheer bravery of the people who were demonstrating down South in Birmingham and Jackson and Selma. I was really impressed with that.
“I’d see kids come to Birmingham — they would have their toothbrush and toothpaste wrapped in a face towel in their little jacket pocket, ready to go to jail, expecting to go to jail. And that was brave because Bull Connor had police dogs and fire hoses and cattle prods, and they were treated pretty poorly. …just that bravery to do that, it stays with me and many times, when I’ve had a situation involving justice, I think of that bravery, and it stiffens my spine a little — even to this day.”
Henderson’s legacy is far-reaching and his accomplishments diverse. He was instrumental in outlawing sexual harassment in California. His decisions led to the state adopting restrictions in its use of solitary confinement and creating a better health care system for inmates. His environmental rulings 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.
Listen to the interview with Henderson in Berkeley Talks episode #89: “Thelton Henderson on the bravery to do what’s right.”