The closing credits scene in the hour-long documentary Soul of Justice: Thelton Henderson’s American Journey could take its title from the Lonne Elder play: Ceremonies in Dark Old Men.
Three white-haired, white-bearded black men—old friends—gather in a kitchen, singing the old doo-wop standard “Speedo.” The song title is an ironic twist, since the three men represent not speed, but the long, patient, often dignified, and sometimes majestic struggle of African-Americans to enter the mainstream of California and American life. One of the men, Troy Duster, is a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. The second is Russ Ellis, a former UCB Vice Chancellor. The third, Berkeley resident Thelton Henderson, is a United States District Judge, and despite his low-key demeanor, one of the most powerful men in the state.
Produced and directed by local filmmaker Abby Ginzberg, a lawyer who once taught at the UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall Law School herself, Soul of Justice documents just how remarkable Henderson’s journey has been through a blend of television file footage and shooting that includes interviews with the judge and his long list of associates and admirers. The film made its debut at the Mill Valley Film Festival last weekend.
It starts in depression-era Los Angeles, where Henderson’s mother moved from her native Louisiana looking for a better life . Athletics took Henderson to the University of California in the early 1950s, the pre-affirmative action days when he was one of only 17 African-Americans in a class of 1,500. After an injury ended his college football career, his attention to studies gained him entry to Boalt Hall. At that time, says Boalt classmate Henry Ramsey (a former California Superior Court judge himself), Boalt admitted only one African-American a year. “Whenever there were two admitted in a given year,” Ramsey continues, “one was being flunked out.”
Before he graduated from Boalt, Henderson was recruited as the only African-American attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Kennedy Justice Department, and in that capacity the film follows him as he was both an eyewitness and a participant in the most dangerous and tumultuous period of the southern civil rights era, running from admission of the first black—James Meredith—to the University of Mississippi, through the assassination of Medgar Evers, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the beginnings of the struggles in Selma that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
“Walking around in that suit and tie, he was in some danger,” civil rights veteran Andrew Young says in one of the film’s interviews. “He was just another nigger, to put it bluntly, although I don’t think he realized that.”
Picked by Jimmy Carter to be one of the first black federal judges in modern times, Henderson’s judicial career runs through the center of many of the most pressing and divisive issues of our time: the 1970s black prison movement led by Soledad Brother George Jackson, the protest against the slaughter of dolphins by tuna fisheries, the affirmative action battles culminating in Henderson’s unconstitutionality ruling on Ward Connerly’s Proposition 209, and returning to the prison struggles to issue rulings against prison guard brutality.
Many of his decisions are considered landmarks of progressive law, including forcing both the tuna industry and the federal government to protect the dolphins, as well as, most recently, putting prisoner health care in California under federal control after prison officials admitted they couldn’t do the job themselves.
Along the way, the film shows how Henderson has gained the enmity of some of the more influential political figures of our time, including Connerly and Republican congressional leader Tom Delay, who is famously shown in the documentary accusing Henderson of being a judge “drunk with power” and calling for his impeachment.
Filmmaker Abby Ginzberg says that her hope for the project is that “it will serve as a provocative introduction to some of the most troubling social issues of the day—the role of the federal courts, the future of affirmative action, the need for and the difficulty of prison reform, the challenge of being a black man in authority in America, and the need to protect the constitutional rights of the dispossessed.” She said she picked Henderson as her subject because “his was a compelling and important American story, and if I did not tell it, it would not get told.”
Soul of Justice shows a man behind all of this action hardly susceptible to any kind of intoxication, with power or anything else. It is the portrait of a quiet, thoughtful man, appearing shy and reserved in his conversations, but with a steely moral core that comes out stated in even tones, rather than shouted.
Speaking of his time as a federal monitor during the civil rights period, Henderson talks of the quiet agony he felt trying to reconcile his roles as a black man and a government official. “I kept asking myself, was I going to be Joe Friday and just get the facts, ma’am, or was I going to hurl myself into the face of injustice and fight it,” he says. “I’ve never resolved that.”
If Thelton Henderson hasn’t resolved that contradiction, Soul of Justice shows that in our lifetime, he did a better job at it than most.