Wade Henderson peers at a photo of himself with Bill Clinton at a 1997 summit advocating for comprehensive hate crime legislation. In another nearby photo, the 67-year-old Washington native poses with President Obama after he signed such legislation into law — 12 years later.
“Issues aren’t resolved instantly,” said Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “You have to be willing to stay in for the long haul.”
Hate crime protections were among many long battles Henderson fought in 20 years leading the lobbying arm of the civil rights movement after stints at the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union. He will step down next year after a new head is selected to lead the coalition of 200 groups that represent and advocate for African Americans, gays, women and other communities.
Henderson is not a household name like civil rights advocates Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. But he became well-known among Washington power players for his behind-the-scenes steering of major legislation that would reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, fight gender pay disparities and update the Americans With Disabilities Act.
As a coalition leader, his top goal was corralling activists with interests as varied as the Anti-Defamation League, Sierra Club and United Steelworkers of America behind common interests. He would negotiate with members of Congress with the force of that support. And he would always keep an eye on the long game, he said, laying the groundwork for future change with public education campaigns and reports to continue pushing the needle on social justice causes.
“When issues of civil rights and social justice come up on the Hill, we always lean on Wade,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said.
Henderson is among the ranks of black civil rights activists who came of age in the 1960s and now must contend with the rise of younger activists, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, who have been disillusioned with the pace of change.
His departure comes at a precarious time for long-fought civil rights. Many advocates said recent and potential future decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court threaten to eviscerate critical voting rights and affirmative action victories. Meanwhile, Henderson said he sees bigotry and hateful rhetoric against immigrants and Muslims being legitimized in the presidential race.
But Henderson said he is not leaving disheartened by what he sees as bumps in the road in the long battle for civil rights.
“Some people doubt or have reservations about whether we’ll ever make progress,” Lewis said. “But Wade will say, ‘We will make progress; you cannot give up and lose hope.’ ”
Henderson entered the first grade months after the Supreme Court declared in 1954 that segregated education was unconstitutional. He was raised in the Bloomingdale and Edgewood neighborhoods of the District by parents who worked for the federal government and encouraged him to challenge injustice even if they were not activists themselves.
“I grew up with one foot in a segregated door and one foot in a changing society,” Henderson said.
As leader of such a broad coalition, Henderson has had to stay on top of a dizzying array of issues.
A recent Wednesday started with a speech defending affirmative action in front of the Supreme Court. He talked to a strategist about the role of EB-5 visas in an upcoming job creation plan. He looked for someone to attend a protest against anti-Semitism in Budapest. He agreed to attend an education-bill signing at the White House. And throughout the day, he corralled other civil rights leaders to join a media call denouncing Islamophobia in the presidential race.
And that was all before his organization’s annual membership meeting, where he moved slowly to greet activists packing the hall.
Laura Murphy, former Washington director of the ACLU, said Henderson distinguished himself from other civil rights lobbyists with a level head and a masterful ability to read political tea leaves. In 2010, Henderson negotiated to reduce, but not eliminate, the disparity in criminal sentencing for selling crack and powder cocaine, helping to win the support of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and persuading other civil rights activists to accept the compromise.
The deal came 15 years after Congress rejected an earlier attempt to reduce penalties. The topic has reemerged as an issue in the 2016 presidential race, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton calling for the end of the remaining sentencing distinctions.
“Some people peak too soon and they become the firebrand, and their fire is so great they extinguish themselves,” Murphy said. “Wade’s always been good at pacing himself for the long battles.”
Henderson works to win over Republican politicians and schmooze with people in power in an era when Black Lives Matter activists and campus protesters successfully demand resignations and interrupt presidential campaign events.
Some civil rights veterans criticize the new wave of activists for failing to heed lessons of their movement.
“You can protest in poetry, but you have to think about government, which is playing prose,” said Barbara Reynolds, a former columnist, civil rights activist and Jesse Jackson biographer. “And to be disconnected in saying, ‘This is not your grandfather’s movement’ . . . just seems so dysfunctional.”
Henderson praises the new generation of activists, comparing them to the student activists of the 1960s and saying they have thrust racial issues into the national consciousness in a way that has not been seen in years.
“More lasting change will ultimately require political engagement,” Henderson said. “Working outside the system generates more frustration because you are working against an institutionalized political mechanism that is designed to reward those who work within it and punish those who work outside it.”
Henderson said one of his greatest regrets is failing to secure a voting representative for the District in the U.S. House, an issue that is personal to him as a lifelong Washingtonian.
Such a step would not have meant statehood or full enfranchisement. But it would have laid the groundwork for further advances, Henderson said, once policymakers recognized that partial equality was not enough.
Victory was nearly clinched in 2009, when a deal that had Republican support would have given Utah and the District additional representation in the House. But the legislation was derailed by an amendment pushed by the National Rifle Association that would have voided the city’s tough gun restrictions.
The loss still angers Henderson, who hangs a painting of a woman wearing a Nationals cap and holding a handgun in his office as a reminder.
Joe Madison, a former political director with the NAACP turned radio talk show host, said Henderson exemplifies the intellectual acumen and strategic mind needed to lift grass-roots calls for change into reality.
“Some people are street militants,” said Madison. “What he has been is a militant moving through the halls of Congress, a militant in cases coming before the Supreme Court.”