Thelton Eugene Henderson has been a judge on the U.S. District Court, Northern California, since 1980. He is an Eastside Boy.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Judge Henderson grew up on the “Eastside,” i.e., east of Main Street in Los Angeles, where the overwhelming majority of Blacks lived until the late 1950s.He attended Hooper Avenue and Trinity Avenue Elementary Schools and John Adams Jr. High. He excelled academically and in sports at Jefferson High School.
The Eastside Boys are a unique group of Black men who have kept in touch for well over 60-years. (Originally, restricted to males, the group now includes women who also grew up on the eastside, so it is now called the Eastside Boys and Girls.) Their continuing friendship and loyalty to each other is based on an affinity of race, culture shared experiences and shared values. Whenever possible, they still see each other, all the while savoring and recounting personal experiences and exploits, real and imagined.
Track season on the Eastside, especially at Jefferson High in the 1940s and 1950s is almost beyond description. The entire Eastside, it seems, was involved directly or indirectly. Each season culminated with track and field city finals at the L.A. Coliseum Relays. This mega event (even then) was punctuated by positive high-pitched partisanship, school pride and much fun—interrupted only by spurts of despair if someone’s favorite didn’t win their event.
Judge Henderson attended the University of California at Berkeley where he played football for the legendary “Pappy” Waldorf. He was instrumental in establishing an African American Association on the Berkeley campus and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science. He later attended the University Of California’s Boalt Hall School of Law and was admitted to practice law in California in 1963.
Judge Henderson began his professional career in 1964 as the first African American attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, specializing in prosecuting voting rights cases in the South. He later went into private practice and, thereafter, served as Directing Attorney for the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County. In 1969, Judge Henderson was appointed the Assistant Dean of the Stanford University School of Law. In May 1980, he was nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, serving as Chief Judge from 1990 to 1997; he remains Senior Judge in that District.
Throughout his judicial career, Judge Henderson has sparked ecstasy and angst with his controversial opinions. In 1997, he struck down Proposition 209, California’s anti-affirmative action initiative. A year later, his decision was reversed by a three-judge court of appeals panel.
Other notable decisions include upholding adequate clean air standards for the San Francisco Bay area, ruling against contractors who maintained minority set-aside programs that did not serve a compelling interest of remedying effects of discrimination, making it easier for Agent Orange victims to receive disability benefits, ruling in favor of Pelican Bay and state prisoners who charged they were denied medical care and were brutalized by guards. In 2005, Judge Henderson found that sub-standard conditions in medical care in the California prison system violated prisoners’ civil rights to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment. His decision to seize control of prison healthcare from the state led to it being placed in receivership.
Genuinely courteous, kind and collegial, Judge Henderson’s modest demeanor belies the scope and depth of his contributions to the people and the legal profession. In 2005, Judge Henderson was inducted into the Los Angeles John M. Langston Bar Association’s Hall of Fame. It was a festive, nostalgic homecoming gathering for the judge who seemed overwhelmed by the warm reception from old friends and colleagues. The tribute hailed Judge Henderson’s renowned fairness, courage, accomplishments and steadfast commitment to justice.
At one time, the eastside boundaries, for Blacks, stretched from near downtown, south along Central Avenue to Watts; eastern and western boundaries were Alameda and Main Streets respectively. Eastside boys were confined to this area largely because of discrimination and racially restrictive covenants. Ironically, forced segregation fostered unprecedented and unparalleled solidarity, mutual support and caring among eastside residents, the likes of which are seldom found these days.
Of course, the Eastside Boys attended schools in the area and submitted to their elders’ authority, accepting punishment, corporal or otherwise, when judged wrong. They also attended local churches and walked the streets that were virtually free of violence and bonded together so closely that for many, an extended family was the norm, not the exception. For almost 60-years, the Eastside Boys have met informally to fraternize, renew old acquaintances and weave tall tales. They were also the recipients and practitioners of the moral fiber and culture of their community. Judge Henderson exemplifies those traits of moral and ethical values, high standards, fortitude and self-discipline. He took those attributes to the Bench and has long proven to be a fair, courageous and highly respected jurist. (He has received numerous honors and awards over the years.)
Thelton, as the Eastside Boys call him, has spent his entire legal career away from Los Angeles but whenever he returns, they are honored and proud to welcome him home. I’m certain, Judge Henderson is just as honored and proud of having had the opportunity to serve the community and the legal profession he so loves.