Henderson, Wade J. 1944(?)–
Wade J. Henderson 1944(?)–
Civil rights activist
Wade Henderson is the director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a nonpartisan coalition of 180 groups that represents racial and ethnic minorities, the disabled, the elderly, immigrants, as well as gay and lesbian rights associations. He has spent most of his professional life as a lobbyist and legislative director in organizations that were on the forefront of the civil rights movement.
As an advocate for the poor and those on the fringes of society, he has worked hard to expand government guarantees on civil rights, which he defined in Emerge Magazine as “a recognition that all persons in our society, but certainly American citizens, should and must be treated equally under the law.” A lawyer, he seeks not only justice in the courtroom, but “social justice for all of our society.”
The 1994 Republican sweep of Congress worries him because he fears that it will undo many Great Society programs, such as welfare, public housing, and affirmative action, to the detriment of minorities in general, but African Americans in particular. He also fears, he told Emerge Magazine “that a failure to address …long-standing social problem[s] of the 20th century will ultimately lead to the undoing of the American Dream,” especially for African Americans.
Wade Henderson was born in Washington, D.C., and attended public schools there. He went on to study at the predominantly black Howard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He received a J. D. degree from Rutgers University School of Law, which also honored him with the J. Skelly Wright award for his outstanding achievement in civil rights advocacy.
Two of his early positions focused on educational opportunities for minority law students. He served as assistant dean and director of the minority student program at his alma mater, Rutgers University School of Law, and was also executive director of the Council of Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO), a Washington, D.C.-based foundation that gives disadvantaged students an opportunity to go to law school.
From there, he went to the American Civil Liberties Union, where he began as a lobbyist. He eventually became associate director of the group’s Washington, D.C., national office. He represented the ACLU on several issues in the late 1980s, one of them California’s Proposition 63, which mandated English as the official state language. This law, Henderson said, denied equal protection under the law to people who spoke a language other than English, and threatened their civil rights as well. “We expect strong legal challenges to English-only in California,” he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1986. “And more problems could arise in Texas and Florida where there are large numbers of Spanish-speaking people.”
As an ACLU lobbyist, he also worked for the rights of
At a Glance …
Born in Washington, D.C.; Education : Howard University, bachelor’s degree in sociology; Rutgers University School of Law.
Assistant dean and director of the minority student program at Rutgers University School of Law; executive director of the Council of Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO); associate director of the Washington national office of the American Civil Liberties Union; legislative director and lobbyist for the NAACP; NAACP Washington bureau director; executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Awards : J. Skelly Wright Award, the Rutgers University School of Law; Fannie Bear Besser Award in Public Service, 1992.
Addresses : Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, 1629 K Street NW, Suite 1010, Washington, D.C. 20006.
illegal Cuban immigrants who had staged a rebellion while being held in federal detention. The government granted the rebels only the right to submit a written statement in their own defense, and refused to pay for lawyers for the defendants. Without a guarantee of counsel, Henderson told the Christian Science Monitor, the right to a hearing “is without substance.” These were poor people, he continued, most with “no family and no money. The likelihood of them all being represented is nil.” A federal deputy attorney general, however, said that he believed that Cuban Americans would almost certainly provide “ample resources” for the immigrants’ defense.
To protect the rights of those who live in public housing, Henderson vociferously opposed a proposal that mandated eviction for all occupants of federal housing if any member of the household was caught selling drugs. “Public housing residents are among the poorest and most vulnerable in our society,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “The next stop after eviction for many of these persons will be a homeless shelter.”
During his tenure at the ACLU, Henderson also wrote an article for USA Today in which he opposed the curfew laws aimed at curbing teen crime in many American cities. Far from protecting people, he argued, these laws “invariably end up hurting the very same children they were designed to protect. They also mask the underlying causes of crime,” and pose a special threat to people of color because “these laws are almost always enforced in a discriminatory way. The targets of curfew laws, loitering laws, and vagrancy laws have historically been the poor and the powerless. Inner-city African American and Latino kids are sure to be the most likely victims of curfew enforcement.”
His most vocal opposition, however, was reserved for Clarence Thomas, the conservative black jurist whose 1991 nomination and eventual confirmation to the Supreme Court bench drew the ACLU’s fire. Although Thomas was entitled to a congressional hearing, Henderson told the Chicago Tribune, his record was proof that he “doesn’t have a commitment to the protection of all persons.” Despite his desire to see a black justice on the bench, he told USA Today, “[w]e believe his views and his stated positions are far more important than his race. We think it’s extremely harmful if a black person on the court tends to provide legitimacy to efforts to roll back substantial protections and rights, which we believe Judge Thomas would do.” Despite a well-orchestrated campaign of resistance, Thomas was narrowly confirmed by the Senate.
Henderson left the ACLU to head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) Washington, D.C. bureau, where he directed the association’s legislative strategy. He also ran its voter empowerment program, which was begun after the Republican majorities were elected in 1994 and designed to regain Democratic control of Congress. During his tenure with the NAACP, Henderson helped pass several important pieces of civil rights legislation, among them the Family Medical Leave Act, the “Motor-Voter” Act, and the Brady handgun bill.
The issue of gun control was of particular concern to Henderson, who wrote a 1993 article in the Washington Post decrying the “escalating random violence that has become a defining characteristic of urban living …. America is losing its soul to a cancer of violence, but the solution … is mired in political indifference on Capitol Hill.” African Americans, wrote Henderson, are especially affected by handgun violence, citing a depressing CDC statistic that homicide—80 percent of which are shootings—is the number one cause of death for young black men. Henderson closed the article by urging Congress to pass the Brady bill as quickly as possible.
Henderson was also instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which he called a “job opportunities bill” in USA Today. He objected to criticism calling it a quota bill—a law that would force an employer to hire certain numbers of minority employees—saying that this was nothing more than “subtle manipulation of racial fears and animosities” intended to prejudice the public. The bill was good for the country, he said, because “[i]t’s in everybody’s interest to make certain that people have been exposed to full opportunities, are well prepared, trained and can do it all.”
Perhaps his most vehement objection during his stay with the NAACP was with the newly Republican Congress and their Contract with America, which Henderson, in an Emerge Magazine article said “may be more aptly titled ’Contract on Black America.’” Clearly disturbed by what he called the use of “racial code words” and a potentially “ominous political shift” Henderson called for a “progressive political effort” from black Americans both in debate and at the polls to defeat the contract.
In June 1996 Henderson left the NAACP to become the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), where, according to his biography, he hoped to “advance an inclusive, affirmative agenda that will help to ensure equal opportunity for all as the nation moves in the 21st century.”
In a 1996 interview with Emerge Magazine, Henderson said that he focused on three issues after assuming leadership at LCCR: “One is the ongoing struggle to save affirmative action programs, both at the federal and state levels. Second, I worked on the welfare bill. Welfare is one of the most significant civil rights issues facing the nation today. The third issue related to a range of separate initiatives attacking the rights of immigrants … “It is affirmative action, however, that he believes is the best way to protect the interests of minorities, calling it a modest but important set of tools that our society uses in an effort to balance out the interest that are important to us all … [It] has to remain an important piece of our focus. We’ve got to make sure that within the confines of the existing law that protections and those benefits are not lost.”
Henderson worries that tension between the races is growing, and that what he sees as a growing economic distance between the haves and have-nots will be a problem in the next century. To eliminate some of that distance, he has given his support to a measure proposed by John Conyers (D-MI) that would study the idea of reparations for black Americans. “I think,” he told Emerge Magazine, “that there is a recognition that slavery and the legacy of slavery, including many of the impediments we experience today, have their root causes in that area and our inability to resolve that problem continues to burden American society.”
Despite his fears, however, Henderson is optimistic. He is convinced that despite the discrimination minorities sometime still endure, the policies of today will not be needed in the future. He certainly intends to work to make sure that it happens.
Boston Globe, December 4, 1988, p. 39.
Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1989, September 7, 1991, November 11, 1994, June 16, 1995, June 29, 1995, September 10, 1995.
Christian Science Monitor, December 17, 1986, p. 5, December 29, 1987, p. 3.
Emerge, October 1996, p. 33.
Jet, May 20, 1996, p. 6.
USA Today, November 27, 1990, p. 10A, April 9, 1991, September 10, 1991.
Additional information was obtained from the office of Mr. Wade Henderson at the LCCR.
—Amy Loerch Strumolo
"Henderson, Wade J. 1944(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/henderson-wade-j-1944
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