to Making the Case
BAREFOOT SANDERS (1925–2008)
Prior to President John F. Kennedy’s fateful visit to Dallas
on Nov. 22, 1963, Barefoot Sanders, then the U.S. attorney for the
Northern District of Texas, warned administration officials that the
visit could put the president in danger. The warning went unheeded, and
Sanders was riding in the motorcade several cars behind Kennedy’s
limousine when the president was assassinated. After JFK’s death,
it fell to Sanders to find U.S. District Judge Sarah
Hughes, who administered the oath of office to Lyndon B.
“(I)t’s an understatement to say it was an exciting and
tragic time,” Sanders said in 2002 during an oral history
interview for the “Outstanding Fifty Year Lawyer Award”
presented by the Texas Bar Foundation.
During his 50-plus years in the legal profession, the freckled-face,
lanky Texan with the unusual moniker — Barefoot really was his middle
name — had an impact on many major issues of his time. He is best known
as the federal judge who oversaw the Dallas school desegregation
Born Harold Barefoot Sanders, Jr., in Dallas in 1925, Sanders grew
up during the Great Depression and learned at an early age that he
would have to earn his own spending money. At various times, he sold
magazines, delivered newspapers, and raised chickens.
World War II interrupted Sanders’ studies at the University of
Texas. He served in the U.S. Navy aboard a destroyer in the Pacific,
finally returning to UT in the fall of 1946. He went on to the
University of Texas School of Law, graduating in 1950.
Following graduation from law school, Sanders went to work for his
father’s law firm, Storey, Sanders, Sherrill & Armstrong in
Dallas. However, he was always restless in private practice and looked
for other things to do.
Sanders, a Democrat, served in the Texas House of Representative from
1953 to 1959. While a state lawmaker, Sanders sponsored bills that
created the Texas Securities Act, the Texas Probate Code, the Texas
Mental Health Code, and the Trinity River Authority. Keeping
Texas’ public schools segregated became an important issue for
the Legislature in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark
1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In the
2002 interview, Sanders recalled that the Legislature considered six or
seven segregation bills. “I voted against every one of them
except one,” Sanders told the interviewer.
In 1958, Sanders ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the U.S. House,
losing to Republican incumbent Bruce Alger. Two years later, Sanders
served as the Dallas County campaign manager for the Kennedy-Johnson
ticket. In 1961, Kennedy appointed him as the U.S. attorney in
Sanders spent four years in Washington, D.C., during the Johnson
administration. From 1965 to 1967, he served first as assistant deputy
attorney general and then as assistant attorney general in the U.S.
Department of Justice. He had the opportunity to work on major
legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Sanders
helped to pass. Johnson appointed him as legislative counsel to the
president in 1967.
Shortly before leaving office in 1968, Johnson nominated Sanders to
the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. But
U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) objected to the
nominations of Sanders and several others. The Senate Judiciary
Committee did not act on the nominations before the end of
Johnson’s presidency. After President Richard Nixon took office,
he chose not to renominate Sanders, who returned to Dallas.
In 1972, Sanders defeated former U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough in the
Democratic primary for a Senate seat. Sanders lost to Republican Sen.
John Tower by more than 300,000 votes in the November general
Sanders’ second nomination to a federal bench came in 1979.
President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the U.S. District Court for the
Northern District, and this time the Senate confirmed him. In 1981,
Sanders inherited Tasby, et al. v. Wright, et al., the case
that led to desegregation of the Dallas public schools, from U.S.
District Judge W. Mac Taylor. Although Sanders ruled that the Dallas
Independent School District continued to show signs of racial
segregation, he concluded that busing was not the answer. Sanders made
busing voluntary and ordered the opening of more magnet schools and
super-sized learning centers. He ended federal oversight of the school
district in 2003.
While a federal judge, Sanders also oversaw restructuring of the
state hospitals for the mentally ill under the suit, R.A.J. v. Texas
Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. As a result of
Sanders’ supervision of the settlement of that suit, Texas began
addressing the needs of mentally ill patients.
Sanders served as senior judge in the Northern District from 1989 to
1995. He took senior status in 1996 and officially retired from the
federal court in 2006. He died in 2008 at the age of 83.