“Thank You for Being You”

In 2017, when our president and CEO Wade Henderson retired and passed the torch to a new generation of leadership at the nation’s oldest and largest civil and human rights coalition, we honored him with our annual Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award. The late John Lewis — civil rights hero and Georgia congressman for decades — presented it, thanking Wade for getting in the way and for making good trouble. “Thank you for being you,” he said.

That night, Congressman Lewis also reminded the audience of the difference between a firecracker and a spark plug: Firecrackers blow up; spark plugs continue to burn. Wade Henderson, he said, was a spark plug for justice — always continuing to fight.

When our coalition needed his leadership again in January 2021, Wade jumped back into action — serving as our interim president and CEO for the past year and a half and guiding us through critically important efforts to protect and advance the civil and human rights of all people.

Wade’s leadership came at a pivotal time for the nation. His return to The Leadership Conference was announced one day after an armed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, at a moment when it seemed so much was broken in the United States. But as the nation reeled, and as we witnessed the second impeachment of the former president, our coalition remained hopeful that better days were ahead. With an incoming administration that had vowed to make racial justice and equity a central focus of its work, and with Wade at the helm, we didn’t miss a beat.

After four years of a Justice Department that aggressively rolled back civil rights and protections, Wade appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Merrick Garland’s nomination to serve as attorney general. “We need an attorney general who will reinstate DOJ’s historic commitment to integrity, independence, and vigorous civil rights enforcement,” he said. “Judge Garland would be such an attorney general, and is a fitting choice to lead the Justice Department at this crucial moment.”

But Wade also knew that Attorney General Garland would need a team of leaders committed to civil rights in order to put justice back into the Justice Department. In response to a question from Senator Chris Coons, Wade made sure that the committee understood the importance of confirming Vanita Gupta (our former president) and Kristen Clarke (our former board member) to serve as associate attorney general and assistant attorney general for civil rights, respectively.

“The two of them taken together will bring an incredible strength to the department that should not be ignored,” he said. “Having both Kristen Clarke and Vanita Gupta as part of the quartet of leadership…makes for, in our view, one of the strongest teams the department has ever fielded.” Last spring, both were confirmed with bipartisan support. Gupta became the first woman of color and first civil rights lawyer to serve as associate attorney general. Clarke became the first woman confirmed to lead the Civil Rights Division and the first Black woman to ever hold the post.

During Wade’s time as interim CEO, President Biden signed, with the support of The Leadership Conference, important legislation to provide pandemic relief, overturn harmful Trump-era rules, reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, end forced arbitration for sexual assault and harassment claims, and make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Biden also signed historic hate crimes legislation, which included the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, to address the terrifying spike in hate crimes targeting the Asian American community and other people of color, religious minorities, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. The Leadership Conference and its Hate Crimes Task Force coordinated the legislative advocacy efforts that secured inclusion of the NO HATE Act and ultimate passage of the bill.

In a continuation of his longtime advocacy on behalf of immigrant communities, Wade successfully pushed the administration to grant Temporary Protected Status for Haiti and Cameroon — personally hearing both times from Secretary Mayorkas with appreciation for Wade’s work on the issue.

Wade also oversaw the launch of important campaigns as president of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, including Vote For Justice, which aims to educate voters about the connection between justice, voting, and other acts of civic participation, and Black History Is American History, an initiative to elevate the central role of Black history in America’s history and to push back on the whitewashing efforts of Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia. He endorsed a groundbreaking report on the importance of civil rights audits, a critical tool to hold companies accountable. Under his leadership, The Leadership Conference also engaged in campaigns to ensure robust participation in the new Emergency Broadband Benefit program, the child tax credit, and to close the Medicaid coverage gap.

Since returning to The Leadership Conference, Wade has been a mainstay in congressional and other hearing rooms. In addition to testifying in support of Merrick Garland’s nomination, he also testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the rise of domestic terrorism in America, before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on the need for DC statehood, and before the presidential commission on the Supreme Court of the United States, where he discussed the role of courts in protecting civil and human rights and the importance of the Supreme Court in upholding equal justice under the law.

He also testified four times about the freedom to vote — once before the House Administration Committee’s Subcommittee on Elections, once before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, and twice before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.

But Wade’s voting rights advocacy extended beyond the hearing room. He attended a meeting with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and other civil rights leaders to discuss the urgent need for federal voting rights legislation — and spoke outside the White House following the meeting. That night, he appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show to discuss the meeting and to announce nationwide vigils for democracy. He also spoke on other news shows to press for Senate action on the freedom to vote.

Wade’s final appearance as interim president before a congressional committee came just last month, when the Senate Judiciary Committee invited him to testify — on behalf of the civil and human rights community — in support of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s historic nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. “By confirming Judge Jackson, the Senate will move our judiciary closer to the promise of equal justice for all,” he told the committee in his written statement. “Indeed, the hope and joy of this monumental moment will be felt for generations to come.”

Wade’s incredible contributions to the civil and human rights movement — and to America — will also be felt for generations to come. His return brought him into contact with a new generation of advocates and reunited him with seasoned colleagues who continued to learn from him. Through it all, he has made the impossible look easy, and we are forever grateful for all he has done over the past year and a half as our interim president and CEO.

We know his work isn’t over. Just as Congressman Lewis said, Wade is a spark plug for justice — continuing to burn, continuing to fight, and never giving up on the work to build an America as good as its ideals.