My position with San Quentin News as Editor-in-Chief affords me the opportunity to meet and interview people from all walks of life, from the imprisoned to the free and notable alike. As a reporter my role is that of observer – an uninvolved representative of the readers.
But one recent interview was different. I became a part of the story from the start. While doing research for the Judge Henderson story I came across information that was both disturbing and inspiring. What I found pertains to his life, to our community and to many revealing reflections about myself. I learned that this powerful judge, this human rights fighter that I would be meeting for the first time, was my homeboy in every sense of the word.
SAME CITY BLOCKS
Even though we were separated by three decades, we were raised on the same city blocks in South Central Los Angeles near the city of Watts and attended the same high school, Thomas Jefferson.
As I approached Judge Henderson after the June 3 ceremony at the new Central Health Services Building I softly hummed our old school fight song, “So Hard to Be a Demo.” Judge Henderson looked at me with a big smile and together we finished the tune and shook hands. We launched into memories that connected us both to our old neighborhood or, in Judge Henderson’s words, “our old stomping grounds.” It turned out that not only did we both come from the same neighborhood, but also both our families had migrated from Louisiana to California. I said that this was crazy, this was unbelievable. Judge Henderson responded in kind and added, “This is a small world.”
A DIFFERENT ROUTE
Henderson’s visit to San Quentin sparked continuous thought and pressing questions for me. What if more people from my community had taken the same route that the Judge Henderson took, instead of the route myself and so many others chose? What would justice look like in our nation’s urban communities?
As a sidelight, even though his name was not listed on the commemorative program for the event, it was Judge Henderson who gave birth to the process that created the building. I would think at the appropriate time, when it comes to naming the building, that Thelton Henderson, now age 76, should be the only candidate. It is only right. Go Demos…”from the bottom up.”
After the ceremony closed there was a heartfelt scene as men from diverse backgrounds congregated around Judge Henderson. Each of them in turn expressed their regret, apologizing for acts they had committed against humanity and their respective communities. They spoke as they would to a father figure. I was among them. So the question returns, why were Judge Henderson and myself, so much alike in our backgrounds, on opposite sides in this exchange? Why was he the renowned lawyer and judge and I the convict who had to hire lawyers?
Judge Henderson’s mother was a domestic worker, his father a janitor. He didn’t have many material things, but he did have an intact family. And he had a mother who pushed him relentlessly, who said he was destined to be a doctor or a lawyer and who would not let him slack off. Plus he had athletics.
At Jefferson High, despite his modest size, he was a star in basketball and football. His two coaches, both UC Berkeley graduates, pushed him toward their alma mater. Henderson said later that he knew Berkeley was good in sports but he didn’t have a clue that it was a great academic university. He found that out after he was hurt in a football game, had to quit sports and turned his attention to the classroom.
As for me, it was my mother alone keeping our family going. She worked hard, sometimes at two jobs, leaving not much time for her children. At one point I wanted to go into the military. She was against it; she felt it would represent her as a failure as a mother. Right or wrong, that was her belief. She cried and I didn’t go.
As for my father, he left my mother and totally rejected me. He would not even hire me as an apprentice at his major lumber company. He gave me no inspiring words. The lack of acceptance caused frustration and confusion in my young growing mind. The absence of one parent or both, if nobody like a coach steps up to fill the void, can set a young mind off track for a lifetime.
Later the pattern was repeated. I thought I wanted to be a clergyman. My mother instructed me to seek counsel from our minister. He said, “You have to be called.” I thought I was being called; that was why I was there. Nothing more was said; there was no further instruction given while I was yearning to find my place in life.
And still later, after I had worked my way up at a large electrical supply company, the owner fired me because he said I was so good that I was a “threat” to the other workers. After that I vowed that I would never depend on others and I drifted, wrongly, into the drug business.
Judge Henderson and I grew up in the neighborhood called South Central that later, trying to paper over its reputation, the city officially “renamed” South Los Angeles. When Judge Henderson grew up, and until a court decision in 1948, it was the only area in L.A. where African-Americans could legally own homes.
RISING TIDE OF DRUGS
Thirty years later, when I grew up, the area had turned much more violent. Gangs were formed, at first to protect local residents from marauding white groups coming in from nearby areas. Then, with the rising tide of crack and other drugs, the gangs became a harsh presence of their own.
The area produced many great and talented people, from Tyra Banks and Kevin Costner to Barry White and the Williams sisters of tennis fame. Jefferson High’s roster of former students includes choreographer Alvin Ailey, diplomat and Noble Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche, actress Dorothy Dandridge and jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon.
But by the 80s and 90s the area had grown violent. It was a difficult place for an unconnected African-American, such as myself, to pick a life’s path.
Which way to go? I went both directions. On the legal side I was a successful owner of a dozen businesses, landowner and music and theatrical producer. While producing “Checkmate” I worked with Vanessa Williams and Denzel Washington, giving him his first exposure on Broadway. I co-created the gangster rap label Death Row Records with artists such as 2Pac and Snoop Dogg.
But I was also on the dark side, becoming a major drug dealer and winding up in prison. In fact, Death Row Records was created while I was actually in San Quentin on Death Row’s East Block section, which was being used as overflow for The Hole. The six months I spent in the close proximity of the condemned men on Death Row allowed me to see what the end could look like for so many other like-minded people that grew up as I did.
The lessons for me are many. It is still painful to accept the fact that I broke the promise that I made to myself as a young man, which was that I would never abandon my children if I was ever blessed to have any. There is no act that will ever justify me depriving my two daughters of a responsible, caring and protective dad. Like Judge Henderson I had a mother who gave unconditional love, but there the parallel ends. In many ways I paid her back by going against everything she taught me.
So the question I ask myself is, what happened to me that allowed me to lie to myself, telling myself that it was okay to become a major urban drug dealer? Yeah, I know “the movies made me do it.” That was one I used to use but this kind of excuse doesn’t work for me anymore. I know better now.
OLD FASHIONED WAY
The fact is I did not have the courage and the insight to do things the old fashioned way. Which consisted of hard, smart and legitimate work. And so I was struck with the law of gravity: “What goes up must come down.”
There is a lie that myself and like-minded people tell ourselves when we say, “We must eat by any means necessary… If I don’t do this and I don’t do that, then my family will starve.” We must learn to think outside of the boxes that we have limited ourselves and our families and friends to, the boxes that allow our actions to continue to feed the cycle of abandonment.
When the men gathered around Judge Henderson after the ceremony, apologizing for what had brought them to
San Quentin, he said, “It’s never too late to change.” I certainly agree. I have accepted the facts that followed the choices that I made. Now I also know it’s never too late to make a difference. I have found that if you look at things differently then they begin to transform into different things.