Segments in this Video

Introduction: Thelton Henderson (01:46)


When Thelton Henderson overturned a voter-approved California ban on affirmative action, his legitimacy as a judge was challenged. The role of racial experiences in his approach to law, and his background, are discussed.

Growing Up (02:18)

In 1937, young Thelton Henderson's family moved to California, where he lived with his grandmother while his mother worked as a servant. His mother wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer; he wanted to be like Jackie Robinson.

College (01:37)

Henderson played football at U-C Berkeley before an injury. His grades got him into prestigious Boalt Hall law school, which admitted few blacks.

Kennedy Justice Department (02:37)

The Kennedy's Justice Deparment, seeking a black lawyer for its investigation of voting rights violations, recruited Henderson out of law school. Kennedy balanced civil rights and Southern appeal.

Developing Relationship with Civil Rights Movement (01:47)

Federal attorneys were not to fraternize with the civil rights movement as they built their case of black disenfranchisement, but segregation brought Henderson into contact with them. Movement figures were initially suspicious.

Federal Monitor Jailed (01:48)

Henderson was assigned to monitor local law enforcement as it arrested civil rights marchers. He likens his groundbreaking role to Jackie Robinson's. He himself was jailed.

Medgar Evers' Funeral and Aftermath (01:59)

Attendees of the funeral of murdered NAACP leader Medgar Evers marched on City Hall; police appeared prepared to shoot until Justice Department official John Door stepped in.

Birmingham Civil Rights March (02:11)

King explains the symbolic significance of Birmingham as a place to make a stand. Henderson monitored the police response there for the Justice Department; he discusses the ambiguity of his position.

Birmingham Church Bombing (01:38)

Four black girls were killed in a bombing of a Birmingham church after the March on Washington. Henderson was sent to investigate; bloodbath and national breakdown seemed possible.

Lending Car to King (02:29)

Henderson lent King his car. The highway patrol discovered this, creating a scandal. Henderson resigned.

Return to California (01:47)

King asked Henderson to work for him. Henderson was divorced and had a young son and badly wanted to return to California.

Need for Black Lawyers (01:50)

Henderson became a lawyer for a legal aid office in Palo Alto; black customers were upset his staff was all white. He started a program to recruit minorities to Stanford Law.

Henderson's Work with Black Students (01:54)

Stanford professors and students were leery of the new black recruits. Henderson nurtured the black students. His program was a great success.

Carter Pursues Diversified Judiciary (01:58)

Carter speaks in favor of affirmative action. He sought to appoint minority judges who would protect poor and minority interests. Henderson reluctantly accepted his appointment.

Henderson's Approach to Court (01:52)

A judge talks about the different life experiences Henderson brought to a white, conservative district Court. He rejected a petition to recuse himself from a civil rights case and ordered a new trial for a black man shackled in court.

Dolphin Case (02:28)

Thelton fishes on a boat, making legal jokes. A lawsuit accusing the tuna industry of ignoring laws protecting dolphins came before him.

Henderson's Court Order in Dolphin Case (01:18)

As the dolphin case came to trial, the U.S. tuna fleet sought to flee the jurisdiction. Henderson ordered them back. The case sparked a successful tuna boycott.

NAFTA and Mexican Tuna Fish Boats (03:09)

After NAFTA, the U.S. encouraged dolphin-killing Mexican tuna boats. Henderson banned their tuna imports, then rejected government attempts to change standards to keep its trade partner happy.

Challenge for Judge (01:54)

Henderson and two other black Berkeley professors discuss racial identity and Henderson's challenges as a black man in authority.

Proposition 209 (01:38)

California's voter-approved Proposition 209, banning affirmative action, was challenged on Constitutional grounds. Supporters objected to the case going before Henderson, the black former civil rights lawyer.

Henderson Rejects Prop 209 (02:31)

Henderson ruled that Prop 209 violated the 14th Amendment by singling out minorities. The Appeals Court rebuked him for violating the majority's will.

Calls for Impeachment (02:02)

Henderson says the press treated his Prop 209 decision as suspect because he is black. Republicans called for his impeachment.

Aftermath of Prop 209 (01:06)

After Prop 209, minority enrollment in California colleges declined. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled affirmative action Constitutional.

Drug Diversion Program (02:11)

A drug diversion program gives a second chance to those convicted of drug offenses. Henderson carved out time to help administer the program through his court.

Pelican Bay (01:26)

In 1992, Henderson received complaints about cruel and unusual punishment from Pelican Bay. A class action lawsuit came before him.

Visit to Pelican Bay (02:23)

Henderson visited a prison to investigate conditions before a trial over alleged abuses. While he was there, guards responded to an alleged riot; Henderson thought the incident was staged.

Pelican Bay Conditions (01:55)

Testimony in a trial documented isolation conditions so severe they caused mental breakdown. Interviewees note how the case illustrates Henderson's empathy.

Henderson's Pelican Bay Decision (01:40)

Henderson's severe condemnation Pelican Bay conditions is excerpted. He outlined a blueprint for prison reform and continually monitored prisons.

Henderson Threatens California Prison Takeover (01:39)

Henderson stripped the prison guards' union's power to protect members against discipline for violence. After Schwarzenegger tried to give back that power, Henderson threatened to take over state prisons.

Prison Health System (02:08)

California prisons did not provide adequate health care, so Henderson put their health systems under federal control.

Henderson as Judge (00:55)

Henderson brings to real life abstract legal principles such as human dignity, one man says. Another lauds his compassion and other characteristics.

Credits: Soul of Justice: Thelton Henderson's American Journey (02:37)

Credits: Soul of Justice: Thelton Henderson's American Journey

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Soul of Justice: Thelton Henderson’s American Journey

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Few judges provoke the ire of conservatives more than Thelton Henderson, senior judge of the Federal District Court of Northern California. This program profiles Thelton Henderson’s life and career, exploring what his decisions on affirmative action, environmental protection, and prison reform—and the furors that surrounded these decisions—mean for American society. Henderson’s rulings, often protecting the constitutional rights of the marginalized, demand close scrutiny of the complex interplay between the law, political power, and social justice. (60 minutes)

Length: 63 minutes

Item#: BVL49790

Copyright date: ©2005

Closed Captioned

Reviews & Awards

CINE Golden Eagle Award               


American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award                 


“Through the inspiring example of a luminous biography, Soul of Justice demands that each of us consider anew the tensions between securing the rights of society’s dispossessed and fidelity to judicial impartiality and the rule of law. A must-view film!”  —Christopher Edley, Jr., Dean and Professor, Boalt Hall School of Law, UC-Berkeley              


“Thelton Henderson’s appointment to the federal bench in 1980 placed him at the forefront of many of the most important issues of our time...His story and this film provide an indispensable chapter in any study of American jurisprudence.”  —Shauna Marshall, Academic Dean, Hastings College of Law     


“Many stories have been written about Henderson’s journey from a young government lawyer to a respected and sometimes controversial judge. Now, this powerful documentary provides a vivid perspective.”  San Francisco Chronicle     


“There are so few worthy heroes. I hope young people will get a chance to see this [film] and realize that there are people who lived up to their commitment and their consciences.”  —U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, San Francisco

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