Photo of Thelton Henderson



The Honorable Judge Thelton E. Henderson’s remarkable career has spanned seven decades (so far, that is) and is distinguished by his successful efforts at championing the civil rights of some of the most marginalized and vulnerable segments of American society.


Born in Shreveport, LA, Hon. Henderson came to Berkeley, CA, in the 1950s to study at UC Berkeley, where he received his bachelor’s degree, and eventually his JD. He became the first African American to serve as an attorney with the US Dept. of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and was sent to the South, where he investigated various civil rights abuses.  It was in this capacity that Mr. Henderson became directly acquainted with Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders struggling for racial justice and liberation. Mr. Henderson has played many roles in his career, but he has made his greatest impacts as federal judge from 1980 until 2017. 

Hon. Henderson is best known for his work as a reformer of California’s mammoth prison system.  Given the disproportionately high incidence of disability among prisoners in California (and elsewhere), Judge Henderson’s accomplishments with respect to eliminating inhumane disciplinary and medical practices in the state’s prisons can rightly be characterized as successes in the field of disability rights.  Judge Henderson has also been instrumental, via litigation over which he presided, in making clear that California’s Department of Education has a responsibility to ensure that local school districts comply with federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act standards when it comes to providing education to students with disabilities.


Hon. Henderson has certainly received ample kudos over the years for his work. But the Center for Independent Living feels that Judge Henderson’s lifetime of accomplishment warrants an additional recognition, one that is specific to his contribution to disability rights, and so we are proud to honor him with a 2019 Ed Roberts Award to celebrate all that he has done for the disability community.  As a person with a disability himself, not to mention a Black man who came of age in a racially segregated America, Judge Henderson knows what it’s like to strive to be successful on an unleveled playing field.  We at the Center for Independent Living invite everyone to help us celebrate the years of hard work that Judge Henderson has invested in order to level that playing field and make this country and world a more just and fair environment for everyone.