Born April 12, 1948 and raised in Washington, DC, Wade Henderson holds a sociology degree from Howard University and a J.D. from the Rutgers University School of Law. After beginning his legal career as a legislative counsel and advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), he went on to serve as executive director of the Council on Legal Education Opportunity, Washington bureau director of the NAACP (until 1996), and (in 2005) trustee with the Center for American Progress. Since 1996, Henderson has been the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR) and its Education Fund. He is also a professor at the David A. Clarke School of Law in Washington, DC.
During his ACLU tenure, Henderson spoke out against curfew laws aimed at curbing teen crime in many urban areas. Charging that such laws “mask the underlying causes of crime” and “are almost always enforced in a discriminatory way,” he stated that “inner-city African-American and Latino kids are sure to be the most likely victims of curfew enforcement.”
Henderson laments that “there is a gap between the ideals that our nation professes and the inequality and injustice that persists in this country”—inequities which he traces back to America’s earliest days. Noting, for instance, that the founding fathers “spoke only of ‘all men‘” and “were slave owners” in many cases, Henderson contends that “few, if any, [of the founders] believed that their vision of freedom and liberty extended to the entire human family.”
Likewise, Henderson derides what he perceives to be a similar hypocrisy among modern-day American leaders who have “preached the gospel of human rights in service to our [illegitimate] goals in the Cold War and, more recently, the war on terror.” Henderson made his anti-war views well known in 2007, when he presented the Institute for Policy Studies‘ Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award (named after the Chilean socialist Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronni Moffitt) to the anti-Iraq War group Appeal For Redress.
A major area where Henderson believes the United States has failed to properly respect human rights is in its treatment of illegal immigrants. In 2010, for instance, he condemned the U.S. Senate’s failure to pass the DREAM Act—legislation designed to create a path-to-citizenship for illegals who came to America as minors—as “a grave injustice that punishes children for the acts of their parents while depriving our nation of the services of young people who seek nothing more than to fully join and contribute to the only nation they’ve ever known.” In January 2013, Henderson praised President Barack Obama‘s “sensible” efforts to “quickly enact immigration reform that includes a roadmap to citizenship for our country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants,” and to “brin[g] the growing underclass of undocumented immigrants out of the shadows of society.”
Voting regulations constitute another area where Henderson believes that U.S. traditions have trampled human rights. Charging that “the United States is one of the harshest nations in the world” vis à vis “denying the right to vote to people with felony convictions,” Henderson has impugned the “shameful” and “longstanding” set of “disenfranchisement policies” that “disproportionately deprive minority and marginalized populations of their voting rights.”
Henderson was particularly outraged by the Supreme Court’s June 25, 2013 decision to strike down a Voting Rights Act provision that required a number of Southern states to undergo special federal scrutiny before being permitted to amend their voting laws in any way. “[This] decision is a major setback to our democracy and will have a real and detrimental impact on the voting rights of Americans,” said Henderson. “No one should be fooled by the naive fantasy that voting discrimination no longer exists.”
Another institution wherein Henderson sees rampant inequity is America’s public education system, which he says “is still plagued by deepening racial and economic segregation.” Henderson notes, for instance, that “in the 2009-2010 school year, 74% of African American students and 80% of Latino students attended ‘majority-minority’ schools where most of their classmates were non-White.” “Most alarmingly of all,” he adds, “18% of African American students and 11% of Latino students attended what [can] best be called ‘apartheid schools,’ which are 99 to 100% non-White.” This state of affairs not only “results in diminished student achievement and outcomes,” claims Henderson, but also accounts for the high dropout rates of black and Hispanic students.
Henderson further condemns the fact that “African American students are 3.5 times more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled from school.” This “silent scandal,” he says, has caused “growing numers of young black men, young Hispanic men, and even young women from communities of color [to be] caught up in the prison-industrial complex.” To address this alleged injustice, Henderson advocates a “nationwide moratorium on out-of-school suspensions.”
Henderson has long supported race-based preferences in the form of affirmative action, which he views as “a way of correcting [the] wrong” of past discrimination, and “the best way to protect the interests of minorities.” In 1991 he strongly objected to the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an opponent of affirmative action. And in the late 1990s, Henderson led LCCHR’s efforts to defeat a number of bills proposing the elimination of preferential policies in higher education and government contracting.
As yet another way of promoting his conception of racial justice, Henderson has supported Rep. John Conyers‘s call for reparations payments to black Americans. In 1996 Henderson explained that such payouts would help convey a proper “recognition that slavery and the legacy of slavery … continues to burden American society.”
Under Henderson’s leadership, LCCHR in 2012 joined the NAACP and the ACLU in filing (with the Supreme Court) an amicus brief affirming the constitutionality of the Affordable Care for America Act (i.e., “Obamacare”). Commenting on the brief, Henderson said: “Health care reform expands liberty for the millions of disadvantaged Americans who are subject to the human costs of being on the wrong side of health insurance disparities.”