After 20 years leading one of the nation’s most respected organizations that has served as the lobbying arm of the civil rights movement, its president and CEO, Wade Henderson, has announced that he will step down at the end of 2016.
Henderson, 67, known for his affection and devotion to his community, stands as a proud Washingtonian who has lived in his home in the Bloomingdale community in Northwest for over 30 years. Since his announcement, accolades have poured in from lawmakers and civil rights leaders representing every part of the nation, touting his exemplary service and tenure at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights from former Attorney General Eric Holder and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to Congressman John Lewis and NAACP Legal and Defense Educational Fund President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill.
Henderson said the service he’s rendered has always been a labor of love.
“It has been a privilege to be part of an institution that has helped to create a better world in the struggle for equality,” he said. “I view this as a marathon, not as a sprint. Beginning with the Civil War and continuing from there, the struggle for equality in terms of the definition posed in the U.S. Constitution remains an enduring task that must go on from one generation to another.”
“I have been here for one generation. I think the time to facilitate new leadership is now. One of the responsibilities of a true leader is to recognize the good work you have done and then to create opportunities for your successor. When I came on the scene, I was a young man living in a segregated world. America said it wanted justice and equality for all but the reality was something quite different. Nonetheless, I had great hope for our country — I still have hope,” Henderson said.
Henderson joined The Leadership Conference in 1996 after serving as Washington Bureau chief of the NAACP and associate director of the ACLU. Under his direction, the coalition has grown from 180 to more than 200 member organizations including its first Muslim and Sikh civil rights groups.
He has led the coalition through the passage of every major civil rights law in the past 20 years with much of his work still in progress including negotiations in Congress focusing on criminal justice reform, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, efforts to ensure transparency of police body-worn camera programs and his personal mission to restore the Voting Rights Act.
“We are on the verge of seeing legislative change related to criminal justice reform including challenging mandatory-minimums and our harsh drug laws,” he noted. “New advocacy groups like Black Lives Matter have played a key role in bringing these discussions to the nation’s attention because of their willingness to protest at local levels and forcing investigations of questionable police-involved shootings. These movements, led by today’s youth, have opened our eyes across the racial divide. I am working with many of these new organizations who are using technology and social media to advance their cause. Their energy is essential and they continue a legacy established by youth-led groups like SNCC and the Freedom Riders.”
Henderson said he has gained great respect for President Barack Obama whose appointments have largely gone unnoticed but have changed the American landscape for the better.
“I admit, I was one of the skeptics that refused to believe that a Black could be elected in my lifetime,” he said. “But through his personality, force of will and incredible skill as an organizer, he not only won, not once but twice, but also organized a new core of voters that alone is worth celebrating. He proved me wrong.
“The appointment of Eric Holder and then Loretta Lynch as attorney general, health insurance that now covers millions of children, his seminal program ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’ the Fair Sentencing Act that changed the disparity between crack and cocaine [sentencing] and forced an analysis of federal drug laws all of these were done in a political atmosphere of opposition. From the start, there was a contingency of folks who committed themselves to defeating his efforts and programs even if it meant damaging the country,” Henderson said.
“History will put his presidency in a different light and will show that he was far more sophisticated and strategic than most have observed. His presidency has been important to America and he’s been impressive as a Black president in ways that have not been fully recognized,” he said.
Henderson noted that efforts to suppress the vote and to make local laws more insidious have been aimed at Blacks and that until we recognize that, we will continue to play into our opponents’ hands.
As the interview drew to a close, Henderson reiterated his belief that now, after considering his decision for almost three years, is the best time for him to move on.
“I’ve run my leg of this race,” he said. “I’m prepared to pass the baton. I’m stepping out on the end of Obama’s presidency. I’m leaving as The Leadership Conference celebrates its 40th Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award Dinner. As I step down, the political landscape will undergo significant changes. A new Congress and a new president will be elected. My timing was not accidental. However, before I leave, I want to make sure my successor is ready for the challenges ahead so that this institution’s interests and constituents will be served for many years to come.
“I feel pretty good about what I’ve accomplished — about what we’ve accomplished,” Henderson said.