SAN FRANCISCO -- For U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, shaping the future of the Oakland police department is another routine shot at making more history.

This is a judge who once rubbed elbows with Martin Luther King Jr., serving as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's first black civil rights lawyer on the front lines of the roiling, segregated South in the early 1960s. His legacy already is so rich he's been the subject of a documentary, "Soul of Justice."

In more than three decades as a Bay Area federal judge, Henderson has ordered California's vast prison system to change its ways, threatened governors with contempt and, in perhaps his most famous case, struck down the state's voter-approved ban on public affirmative action programs -- a decision that was later reversed but provoked so many death threats that U.S. marshals had to stand guard outside his East Bay home.

Now 79 and in the twilight of his career, Henderson is not done branding his name in the law books. On Thursday, he will be asked to sign off on an unprecedented agreement that calls for him to appoint a monitor to oversee the Oakland police department, fueled in large part by his concerns that city leaders were not doing enough to fix a long-running pattern of officer brutality.

To those who know him best, it is a vintage role.

"I just think he sees a broader picture," says Marilyn Hall Patel, a former federal judge who joined the local bench in 1980 at the same time as Henderson. "Maybe it's a sense of history in terms of what he thinks needs to be done."

Henderson's 19th-floor chambers are a museum of that history. Amid the pictures of civil rights leaders and rows of law books, a framed, yellowed leaflet from June 1963 hangs prominently, a reminder of a dark chapter he witnessed firsthand.

"Ask yourself this important question," reads the old leaflet, found on an Alabama doctor's waiting room table. "What have I personally done to maintain segregation?"

Henderson remains struck by the message, saying it is part of a past that shapes his approach to solving what he perceives as injustice, whether it was abuse of inmates at the state's notorious Pelican Bay State Prison or the government's failure to protect dolphins from the tuna industry's nets.

As Oakland officials have discovered, the soft-spoken Henderson can be impatient when government drags its feet.

"In most institutional reform cases, whether it's schools, police departments, prisons ... they deeply resent a judge's presence," Henderson told this newspaper. "They sort of hunker down and wait for us to go away, try to sweep it under the rug.

"But this is not what it is all about," he continues. "I'm going to look under the rug. And you're going to do it right."

Henderson was raised in Los Angeles by a single mother, taking up football in high school and earning a scholarship to play for Cal. He tore up his knee his first year, forcing him to focus on his schoolwork.

After graduating from law school, he was recruited by the Justice Department's civil rights chief. "I was the black guy out in the field who had access in the field," he says.

He was forced to resign amid controversy when he loaned a car to King for a drive to Selma, unleashing fury from Southern political leaders who viewed it as being too cozy with the civil rights movement. Henderson returned to the Bay Area to develop a practice as a civil rights lawyer and raise his young son.

Former President Jimmy Carter put him on the bench in 1980, and Henderson jokes now that he would never be confirmed in today's partisan judicial battles. He recalls his only opposition came from the late Sen. Strom Thurmond -- and the judge can still imitate the South Carolina pol's drawl while grilling him.

Henderson's role in the civil rights battles became an issue in 1996 when he declared unconstitutional Proposition 209, California's ban on affirmative action in state agencies, including universities and public contracts. The ruling sparked a conservative backlash, with House Republicans calling for his impeachment. Ward Connerly, the former UC regent who pushed the law, at the time called Henderson's ruling "the most garbage decision I have ever seen."

Connerly, who still thinks Henderson was wrong, is more subdued now.

"I still have a measure of respect for him," Connerly says. "But I was among those who felt he was straying outside the framework of the law."

Henderson remains convinced he was right on Proposition 209. "That's probably as careful a decision as I've ever drawn up," he says.

Henderson's confidantes say the case exemplified a fearlessness.

"You just realize this guy is undaunted," says Ed Swanson, a former law clerk.

Time is starting to catch up with Henderson, however. The former running back is now in a wheelchair, limited by an autoimmune disease that has sapped the strength in his legs. While he can still fish, his greatest love outside the law, his hands are giving out as well.

But Henderson isn't ready to hang up his robes just yet. Each year, he decides whether to hire a new crop of law clerks, and if he does, it's a promise he'll keep going for that year. And he continues to attract big cases: He just drew the legal challenge to Proposition 35, the recent crackdown on human trafficking offenders.

"They keep coming along," Henderson says. "What I see now is that one day, and I have no idea when it'll be, I'll say I don't want to do this again."

Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz

Thelton Henderson

U.S. District Judge

NAME: Thelton Henderson
AGE: 79
OCCUPATION: Federal judge
PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND: Appointed to the Bay Area federal bench in 1980 by former President Jimmy Carter. Previously worked as a civil rights lawyer, at Stanford University law school, Legal Aid in East Palo Alto and with the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division during the Kennedy administration.
EDUCATION: Graduated from UC Berkeley law school in 1962.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Struck down Proposition 209, the state's ban on public affirmative action programs, but was reversed by federal appeals court. Member of three-judge panel that ordered California to reduce its prison population because of poor medical and mental health care for inmates. Found abusive conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison. Forced the tuna industry and U.S. government to protect dolphins from use of tuna nets.
NOTEWORTHY: Recruited by former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to be the civil rights division's first black lawyer, sent to the South to represent the government in early showdowns between civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., and Southern segregationists.
PERSONAL: Has an adult son. Went to UC Berkeley on a football scholarship. Avid fisherman and poker player.