April 11, 2024
man in suit smiling in an office

By Sam Starnes, Rutgers Foundation

Soon after Wade J. Henderson turned 15 in the spring of 1963, he planned to buy a new suit for his upcoming middle school graduation ceremony using money he had earned delivering newspapers in his Northwest Washington, D.C. neighborhood. “I decided to go to the city's most expensive department store,” says Henderson ’73.

“I picked out a suit, went up to the counter, and I asked the salesman to point to the dressing room so I could try the suit on,” he says. “The salesman looked at me derisively and said, ‘You know Negroes can't try on clothes here at Garfinckel’s!’ He burst out laughing, as did many of the store’s patrons. I was so humiliated.”

Henderson says he dropped the suit and ran from the store. “When I got outside, I was so angry with myself for that reaction. I realized, ‘Oh hell no! Discrimination is not for me. I don't like it, and there's no reason for it. I'm going to have to bring about some changes doing what I can to make that happen.”

That moment 61 years ago was pivotal one for Henderson, who was inspired by landmark events that year, including the March on Washington, which he attended and heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Other events that motivated him that year included the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama—where children were blasted with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs—and the Birmingham church bombing that killed three 14-year-old girls and one 11-year-old girl. 

He would go on to Howard University for his undergraduate degree and then Rutgers Law School in Newark, which served as his foundation for a renowned career of more than 50 years as a civil rights leader and attorney. He served as president for 21 years of The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 230 national organizations that has influenced passage and implementation of every major civil rights act since 1957. Previously he’d served in leadership roles with the NAACP, ACLU, and the Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO). 

Photos of Henderson with presidents from both political parties celebrating laws he helped create—including the Voting Rights Act reauthorization of 2006, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, and the Simpson-Mazzoli Act in 1986, which was the last major bipartisan immigration measure passed by Congress—fill the walls of his office near the White House. 

“I came along in an interesting time where change was needed, and the possibility of achieving that change was undeniable,” says Henderson, who retired from The Leadership Conference presidency in 2017 but remains active in civil and human rights causes. He will be inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni on April 25.

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Rutgers Law Media Contact:
Shanida Carter

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