“A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters. To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in a complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of full victory. It underestimates the value of confrontation and dissolves the confidence born of partial victory by which new efforts are powered.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., American Civil Rights Activist, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” June 1, 1967
As he prepared to step down as President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, it is likely Wade Henderson pondered the same question that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did 50 years earlier as he sat alone in a secluded rental house in Ocho Rios, Jamaica – the question that would become the title of his final book: Where do we go from here?
Both men are part of the long, unfinished narrative of our nation’s struggle for equality for all its citizens. And at critical points in our history, both reached a period in their work as activists and advocates that called for contemplation of the future of our country and its continuing fight for civil and human rights.
In his book, Dr. King reflected on economic and social reform that would benefit all Americans, and specifically looked at the state of racial equality for African-Americans at the very infancy of the civil rights movement following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also reflected on Black nationalism, which appeared to be the next phase in the struggle of African-Americans to attain basic civil rights—considering the effectiveness of the ideology, its tactics, and its ability to shape, mark and transform the movement for civil rights.
At the age of 15, Henderson attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Dr. King famously delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech.” Fortunately, Henderson’s passion for social justice did not stay on the mall of the Lincoln Memorial. Before taking the helm of the Leadership Conference for nearly 21 years, Henderson was the Washington Bureau director of the NAACP, directing the civil rights organization’s government affairs and national legislative program and he worked as the associate director of the Washington office of the ACLU.
Under his direction, Henderson grew the Leadership Conference’s number of member organizations from 170 to 200, including its first Muslim and Sikh civil rights groups, and he led the coalition through the passage of every major civil rights law in the past 20 years, including reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Fair Sentencing Act. And like Dr. King, Henderson recognized that a “generational change” was taking hold in the civil and human rights movement, including the rise of Black Lives Matter and newer forms of activism.
Rather than resist that change, Henderson embraced this newest phase, deciding that his work with the coalition had reached its highest level and concluded that, “it’s at that point that I think it is best to step aside and to promote constructive change.”
Today, while progress has been made, we find ourselves fighting for much of what Dr. King fought during his time, and we face the rollback of many hard-fought-for reforms and legislation. But to his credit, Henderson built a well-earned legacy and simultaneously forged a path for the Leadership Conference and the next generation of advocates to lead and succeed.
The coalition will now be directed by Vanita Gupta, the first woman and first child of immigrants to head the organization. A long-time civil rights litigator and former head of the Obama administration’s Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Gupta is confident in her belief that, “this organization is perfectly situated to address the current assault on civil rights that we are seeing today.”
As a member of the Leadership Conference, the National Urban League firmly believes the coalition has been entrusted to capable and intelligent hands and we look forward to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Leadership Conference on the frontlines as we all work together to protect our progress.
By Marc H. Morial