Living the Dream: Wade Henderson

Henderson says the civil rights  movement "transformed" his life.

Posted: 08/22/2013 11:37 AM EDT

One of the most defining moments of civil rights leader Wade Henderson's youth took place in the suit department of a posh Washington, D.C., department store.

He was about to graduate from junior high school and planned to buy a brand-new suit for graduation, using the money he'd earned from the paper route he'd begun a few years earlier on the day that President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. Being able to do so was for him a symbol of manhood.

His parents had given him very specific instructions about how to buy a suit, including being sure to try it on before making the purchase.

"I looked around at the suits, examining them and feeling like I'm a big boy making my own decisions," he recalled, and after making his choice, asked the salesman for a dressing room.

"And he looks at me with this sort of critical smile and then says rather derisively, 'You know Negroes can't try on clothes [here],' and started laughing," Henderson said.

Feeling humiliated and self-conscious, he ran from the store, angry at himself for feeling so affected by the "dehumanizing" experience.

"I realized for the first time that it really was different being a Negro," said Henderson, now head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, although the signs were there.

A "rigid code of racial segregation" was practiced in Washington, Henderson said, and "I was becoming aware of the real contraction between what we as a country promised to both our own citizens and the world and what we actually practiced in terms of this denial of basic rights that for me was very difficult to reconcile and fully understand."

He hated the fact that although his father had taught him basic rules of civility, including looking people in the eye when he spoke to them and offering a firm handshake, he was expected to avoid eye contact with white people he passed on the street.

So the following year, when he learned that the March on Washington would take place in his hometown, Henderson felt it was very important to be there and looks back on the experience as a "rite of passage."

"A number of families in Washington had been made to feel insecure about the safety and security of the event. My parents were reluctant to allow me to go, but I thought it was important to be there," he said.

Henderson and a friend rode their bikes to the historic event. Mahalia Jackson's performance left an impression on the 15-year-old, but "the speeches, not so much."

He was struck most by both the size of the crowd and how dignified everyone was.

"There'd been widespread predictions of chaos and violence. Instead, I found people dressed in their Sunday finery, carrying themselves with a dignity that was really remarkable and encouraging," Henderson said.

Henderson credits the march and other civil rights milestones, including Bloody Sunday and additional "powerful images of injustice," for the changes that came in their aftermath, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"My world was transformed by the civil rights movement," he said. "It ended segregation in our country, where we had our own version of apartheid that was as virulent as anything South Africa could image. That all changed because of the movement."

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(Photo: Rod Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times /Landov)

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