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Barefoot Sanders


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 T. Hughes, who administered the oath of office to Lyndon B. Johnson.

“(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 case.

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 Dallas.

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 election.

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.

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