WASHINGTON – After 20 years as head of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Wade Henderson has announced his plan to step down at the end of 2016.
“This announcement is just one step on a very long path in ensuring the long-term health, integrity and effectiveness of The Leadership Conference and its coalition of more than 200 civil rights groups,” said Henderson. “There’s an unmistakable generational transition happening in the civil and human rights movement. The day-to-day work of civil rights advocacy is extremely important, but on its own, is not enough. Leaders also have the responsibility to cultivate, encourage and make paths for the next generation to lead and to thrive.”
Henderson’s announcement is the next step of a multi-year plan to prepare the organization for a generational shift in civil and human rights leadership that has included a restructuring of the organization’s board, a strengthening of its staff capacity, improved fundraising and fiscal controls, and a renewed emphasis on civil rights as human rights.
A national search will be conducted for the next president and CEO of The Leadership Conference and its sister organization, The Leadership Conference Education Fund. The other members of the organizations’ executive leadership team, Executive Vice President for Policy Nancy Zirkin, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Karen Lawson, and Executive Vice President for Field and Communications Ellen Buchman, will be in place to ensure a stable transition.
Henderson joined The Leadership Conference—then known as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights—in 1996 after serving as Washington Bureau chief of the NAACP and associate director of the ACLU. Under his leadership, the coalition has grown from 180 to more than 200 member organizations—including its first Muslim and Sikh civil rights groups—and from a staff of 7 to 45—adding development, field, and communications departments, as well as the Americans for Financial Reform project.
Henderson has led the coalition through the passage of every major civil rights law in the past 20 years, greatly expanded the footprint of domestic civil and human rights organizations in global human rights work, and led The Education Fund’s work to build the political will throughout the country for civil rights reforms. A listing of select highlights from 1996 to 2015 is below.
Much of Henderson’s proudest work is still in progress, including negotiations in Congress around criminal justice reform and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, groundbreaking work to ensure transparency of police body-worn camera programs and the role of civil rights in the era of big data, and continued efforts to restore the Voting Rights Act.
“You want to leave at the top of your game,” Henderson said. “The landscape of Washington has clearly changed, but The Leadership Conference has adapted and evolved, and some of its best work is taking place right now.”
Known for decades as the lobbying arm of the civil rights movement, The Leadership Conference has coordinated the advocacy on behalf of every major civil rights law since it was founded in 1950 by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Arnold Aronson of the organization now known as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The Education Fund, founded in 1969 as the research and public education arm of the coalition, builds public and political will for policies and laws that promote and protect the civil and human rights of all.
Both organizations have grown to complement their policy expertise with a strong field and communications capacity to conduct public education campaigns that leverage a range of diverse voices to empower and mobilize advocates around the country to advance progressive change at the local, state and federal level.
Through it all, Henderson’s belief that “if you want a friend, you have to be a friend” has strengthened the impact of the nation’s most diverse coalition of organizations representing persons of color, women, children, organized labor, persons with disabilities, seniors, the LGBT community, and faith communities.
“Wade is a visionary leader, a superlative strategist, and a brilliant and committed institution builder,” said Judith Lichtman, chair of The Leadership Conference board, and William Robinson, chair of The Education Fund board. “He has transformed The Leadership Conference and our entire movement. We’ll never replace Wade, but we will ensure that his torch is passed to a new generation that will provide dynamic, forward-thinking leadership for the organizations and for our movement.”
· Below are quotes from lawmakers and civil rights leaders and a select list of highlights of Henderson’s 20-year tenure.
Select Highlights from Henderson’s 20-Year Tenure at The Leadership Conference
Over the past 20 years, Henderson has led the coalition through the passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the Voting Rights Act reauthorization of 2006, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, and the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, and the historic confirmations of Justice Sonia Sotomayor and former Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009, the first director of the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau Richard Cordray in 2012, Attorney General Loretta Lynch in 2015, and countless federal judges.
The Leadership Conference—which formally added “Human Rights” to its name in 2010—has greatly expanded the capacity of domestic U.S. civil and human rights organizations to engage on international human rights concerns and championed the U.S. ratification of international civil and human rights treaties. It regularly participates in or leads delegations to the United Nations to review American progress on human rights treaty obligations and to key international conferences on discrimination like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s conferences on anti-Semitism in 2004 and 2014, among many others.
Under Henderson’s leadership, The Education Fund has played an instrumental role in building the political will for advancing civil and human rights on numerous issues, including:
· The passage of hate crimes laws through its groundbreaking 1997 report Cause for Concern, the first of its kind to knit together the diverse communities impacted by hate crimes, and follow-up reports Cause for Concern: Hate Crimes in America, 2004 Update, and Confronting the New Faces of Hate: Hate Crimes in America 2009.
· Ending racial profiling with its 2003 report Wrong Then, Wrong Now: Racial Profiling Before and After September 11, which showed how racial profiling impacts diverse communities in the street-level, national security, and immigration contexts, and its 2011 follow-up Restoring a National Consensus: The Need to End Racial Profiling in America.
· Reforming immigration with its ongoing work to build coalitions between African-American and Latino communities and to preserve birthright citizenship.
· Ensuring greater fairness in education with the release of reports such as Advancing Equity through More and Better STEM Learning and Cheating Our Future: How Decades of Disinvestment by States Jeopardizes Equal Educational Opportunity in 2015, and decades of work to preserve equal opportunity programs in higher education, advance school funding equity and more.
· Protecting civil rights in the era of big data with the release the Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data in 2014.
· Ensuring the responsible implementation of police body-worn camera programs with the release of the Civil Rights Principles on Body Worn Cameras in 2015.
· The fair counting of diverse Americans in the census through the “Everyone Counts!” campaign for the 2000 census and the “It’s Time. Make Yourself Count” Campaign for the 2010 census, and the issuing of reports to inform the Census Bureau on how to count diverse communities, such as Race and Ethnicity in the 2020 Census: Improving Data to Capture a Multiethnic America, Counting in the Wake of a Catastrophe: Challenges and Recommendations for the 2010 Census in the Gulf Coast Region, and The Hard Count: A Community Perspective on 2010 Census Operations in the Gulf Coast and Texas Colonias.
Quotes from Lawmakers and Civil Rights Leaders on Henderson’s Tenure
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
“Wade has been a tireless advocate for the creation of opportunities for all children to receive a good education. He is a great civil rights champion and our nation is better for his lifetime of work. I appreciate his friendship and wish him well.”
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change
“Unity, particularly in Washington, is not something people expect—nor is it easy to achieve. Wade Henderson’s extraordinary ability to unite people and groups with diverse and sometimes diverging agendas has had an enormous impact on our country, advancing civil and human rights in concrete and profound ways for millions of people. Wade has made coalition building both a science and an art form. He has been the undisputed and indispensable leader of our community—the person we all call to solve the insoluble problems, to create the winning strategy, to make a way out of no way. There is no one more trusted or respected in our community, and many of us have benefitted immensely from his mentorship, wisdom and counsel. Wade’s motto has been that if you want a friend, you have to be a friend. The cause of civil and human rights has had no better friend than Wade Henderson.”
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center
“Wade’s been the glue that’s held the modern movement for civil rights together and the spark that’s kept it constantly moving forward. No one has been better at building coalitions and getting things done than Wade Henderson. John Boehner would still be Speaker of the House if he had Wade’s remarkable array of talents.”
Former Congressman Tom Davis (R-VA)
“Wade is passionate, persuasive and super bright. But more importantly, he’s humble. He’s that rare leader who cares about more doing good than getting credit. The Leadership Conference will continue to thrive after Wade because of what Wade has built and how he’s built it. Their history is their credibility.”
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
“Wade Henderson has been a passionate advocate for the modern civil and human rights movement. Wade has always represented his position with honesty, integrity and a measure of grace worthy of our democracy and the noble conversation conducted over generations that has helped shape this country from its earliest days. I wish him well.”
Former Attorney General Eric Holder
“Wade has led The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights for the last two decades with integrity, honor, and grace. He has changed our nation—and made it better. Wade is an exceptional leader, a true champion of the voiceless, and a good friend. This announcement truly marks the end of an era, but we are all grateful that he has agreed to stay on to help shepherd The Leadership Conference through this transition, demonstrating his trademark generosity of spirit and commitment.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
“Wade is an extraordinary civil rights leader. Just watching him lead our coalition, manage conflict and keep our civil right troops motivated and focused has been inspiring. Wade manages to combine optimism with a strong streak of pragmatism. He knows what should be done and he also knows what can be done. It’s been a pleasure to work in The Leadership Conference under Wade’s superb leadership.”
Congressman John Lewis (D-GA)
“I regret to learn that Wade Henderson is announcing he is stepping down. He’s been a reliable, dependable ally in the struggle for both civil and human rights. He has been a champion for an increase in the minimum wage, equal compensation for women, protecting the environment, and against voting discrimination. His commitment, dedication, and leadership will be missed, not just on Capitol Hill but around the nation.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)
“Wade Henderson is one of the great civil rights advocates of our time. Wade’s bold achievements at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have strengthened our democracy and advanced justice for all Americans. We owe Wade a deep debt of gratitude for a lifetime of service to the values we hold dear and wish him and his family all the best.”
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU
“For over a generation, Wade Henderson has been on the front lines of every single fight for equality and justice. His acumen, diplomatic skills and unwavering commitment to principles have made ours a more perfect union. We thank Wade Henderson for his outstanding service to the cause of civil and human rights, and we will honor his legacy by believing that we can still achieve more to ensure freedom, justice and equality for all.”
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF
“Wade has been an unmatched one-person strategic force on civil rights in Washington for decades. His wise and principled stewardship of The Leadership Conference has been true to the legacy of its founders, while ensuring that it has become a vital 21st century driver of social change in national policy. Every American has benefited from Wade’s good works.”
Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME
“The 1.6 million members of AFSCME join me in wishing Wade Henderson well upon his stepping down as president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Wade and I have worked hand-in-hand on critical issues affecting every American, including voting rights and the advancement of workers’ rights. A champion who continues to inspire all of us, Wade will no doubt keep speaking out for justice.”
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States. The Leadership Conference works toward an America as good as its ideals.
The Leadership Conference Education Fund builds public will for federal policies that promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States. The Education Fund’s campaigns empower and mobilize advocates around the country to push for progressive change in the United States. It was founded in 1969 as the education and research arm of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
For more information on The Leadership Conference and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, visit www.civilrights.org.