Sanders, Harold Barefoot, Jr. (1925–2008)

By: Darwin Payne

Type: Biography

Published: July 16, 2021

Updated: July 16, 2021

Harold Barefoot Sanders, Jr., federal district judge, state legislator, and longtime Democratic official, son of H. B. Sanders, Sr., and Mary Elizabeth (Forrester) Sanders, was born on February 5, 1925, in Dallas, Texas. Sanders grew up in Dallas during the Great Depression and went by his initials, “H. B.” He bristled when fellow students inevitably learned that his middle name was Barefoot and had fun teasing him about it. Barefoot was not a nickname but was his paternal grandmother’s maiden name—Dennie Barefoot—and was passed along to him by his parents when he was born Harold Barefoot Sanders, Jr. The senior Sanders was a Dallas attorney and partner in the firm Storey, Sanders, Sherrill and Armstrong.

Young Sanders was noted for the abundance of freckles on his face. At the age of eleven he entered a Texas Centennial Exposition contest to determine the most freckled-faced boy and girl of Texas. He won the boy’s category and, with 5,673 freckles, was declared the freckled king of the state; he won a ten-gallon cowboy hat. He was an excellent student and industrious worker and earned extra spending money by throwing a newspaper route and raising chickens, presumably selling their eggs.

In May 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor and the nation’s entry into World War II, Sanders graduated from North Dallas High School. Most graduation events featured prominent speakers who stressed the nation’s patriotic needs. North Dallas High presented a different program: five leading students, including Sanders, spoke in the high school auditorium on the topic, “What Shall We Do?” For him, higher education was next. He enrolled at the University of Texas, where he immediately involved himself in campus affairs and was elected cheerleader his first year. Instead of re-enrolling for his sophomore year, however, he joined the United States Navy in 1943. After initial training at Mercer University in Georgia and Notre Dame, he saw duty on a destroyer in the Pacific Theater. When the war ended, he returned to the University of Texas and once again was elected cheerleader.

Sanders somehow recognized that “Barefoot” was a name not to be disparaged, for he decided in 1947 to campaign for student body president under that name. He was perhaps encouraged by fellow students, for, as a member of the Phi Delta Theta social fraternity and other organizations including the very visible Texas Cowboys, he had plenty of helpmates. Students were surprised one morning late in the campaign when they saw campus sidewalks whitewashed with stencils that depicted bare feet promoting his election. Years later, in an interview with the Dallas Morning News, he declared that his choice to use the name “Barefoot” was “a conscious decision.” He won the election. As a judge many years later, Sanders wore a gold footprint pin on his judicial robes.

After earning a pre-law degree in 1949, Sanders completed his University of Texas studies and earned a law degree in 1950. He began his practice with his father’s law firm, Storey, Sanders, Sherrill and Armstrong. On June 6, 1952, he married Jan Scurlock, also a UT graduate. They later had four children: a son, H. B. III; and three daughters, Janet Lea, Martha Kay, and Mary Frances.

Sanders, having enjoyed campaigning with so much success on the UT campus, entered the 1952 Democratic race to be a state representative for District 51-4 (Dallas) in the House of the Fifty-third Texas Legislature. He opposed incumbent F. H. Sherman and another veteran office seeker, Pat O’Neal. The name “H. B. Sanders” was forgotten, and from that time on, and by his own choice, he was known as “Barefoot Sanders.” A Dallas Morning News article described him as “a lanky, freckled-face young lawyer with a sharp delivery and the improbable first name [sic] of Barefoot.” The news story with election returns declared that it was “a jet-propelled young Dallas lawyer who stole the show in an otherwise dull runoff” by defeating Sherman by an astonishing margin of 13,502 to 8,750. The same article also described Sanders as “a gangling, vote-getting kid with a Pied Piper name.”

The impressive young candidate also won the next two elections for the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth legislatures and served in total from 1953 to 1959. During his time in the Texas House, he served on a number of committees, including the Motor Traffic, Judiciary, Education, and Federal Relations committees. He chaired the Rules of the House of Representatives Committee during the Fifty-fifth legislature.

Having won three campaigns and served six years in the Texas legislature, Sanders took on a broader challenge in 1958 and sought to unseat Dallas’s Republican U. S. Congressman Bruce Alger, who held the seat for Texas’s Fifth District since 1954. The two waged a spirited campaign in which Alger, considered one of the most conservative members of Congress, accused Sanders of representing what he called the “gimmie boys.” Sanders countered that Alger was a “do-nothing congressman” who was ineffectual for his district. Alger won the race with a margin of 7,000 votes.

Sanders considered another possible election run but instead accepted the job of Dallas County campaign manager for John F. Kennedy’s presidential race. Following Kennedy’s victory in the fall election, including a majority of Texas voters, he appointed Sanders as U. S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas.

On November 22, 1963, Sanders and his wife were riding a few automobiles behind the president in his motorcade through downtown Dallas when the president was shot and killed and Texas governor John Connally was wounded (see KENNEDY ASSASSINATION). Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, also in the motorcade, constitutionally assumed the presidency when doctors confirmed Kennedy’s death at Parkland Hospital, but Johnson needed to be sworn into that office. It fell to Sanders to find a copy of the presidential oath of office and locate U. S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes to perform that service aboard Air Force One moments before the airplane bearing the slain president’s body, his widow, and President Johnson and his wife departed Dallas for Washington, D. C.

President Johnson soon summoned Sanders to Washington, D. C., to assist in the transfer of power, as assistant deputy attorney general and then assistant attorney general in the U. S. Justice Department. In these positions he helped with Johnson’s Great Society initiatives such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Sanders played an even more important behind-the-scenes role in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which struck down artificial barriers preventing minorities from exercising their right to vote.

From 1967 to 1968 Sanders became legislative counsel to President Johnson. Before the president left office, he nominated Sanders to be federal appellate judge for the District of Columbia circuit, but Johnson’s term of office expired before Sanders could be confirmed by the Senate, and the new president, Richard Nixon, chose another person for the office.

Returning to Dallas, Sanders resumed his private practice as an attorney. But public service continued to attract him. In 1972 he won the Democratic primary in the race for the U. S. Senate and beat the more liberal former senator Ralph Yarborough. His Republican opponent in the fall was the incumbent John Tower. In a year dominated by GOP overall election successes, Tower won an easy victory by more than 300,000 votes after heavily outspending Sanders.

When Democrat Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, he did not forget Sanders’s faithful service to the party for so many years. In February 1979 he nominated Sanders for a judgeship in the Northern District of Texas. Even the conservative Dallas Morning News approved, citing Sanders’s “wide range of experience” and “record of integrity and fairness.”  In May 1979 he took the oath of office in Dallas and was surrounded by nine fellow jurists, family members, and friends, who gave him a standing ovation. The president of the Dallas Bar Association, Jerry Buchmeyer, referring to the freckles still visible on fifty-three-year-old Sanders, observed that this was the “first time Tom Sawyer was ever elevated to the federal bench.”  

As a federal judge Sanders inherited the public school integration case, Tasby, et al. v. Wright, et al. Concluding that the Dallas Independent School District had not eliminated racial segregation, he ruled that requiring busing of students was not a satisfactory answer. Finally he made busing voluntary and ordered the creation of more magnet schools and super-sized learning centers in minority neighborhoods that would attract students of all colors. His oversight of the school district ended in 2003 after presiding over the case for more than two decades. Other significant cases he supervised included restructuring the state hospitals for the mentally ill, which improved living conditions and the treatments of patients.

From 1989 to 1995 Sanders served as chief judge of the Northern District of Texas. In 1996 he took senior status and retired at the age of eighty-one in 2006. On September 21, 2008, Harold Barefoot Sanders, Jr., died of natural causes at his Dallas home. He was a Methodist. His remains were interred at the Northhaven Celebration Garden Columbarium.

Barefoot Obituaries for 2008–09, “Barefoot Bulletin” to Record History~BAREFOOT GENEALOGY~”Born Barefoot” (, accessed June 17, 2021. “Barefoot Sanders (1925–2008),” State Bar of Texas (, accessed June 17, 2021. Dallas Morning News, June 24, 1936; May 29, 1942; June 1, 8, 1952; July 17, 1952; August 24, 1952; November 5, 1958; November 12, 1972; February 10, 1972; May 5, 1979; June 19, 1988. Edward H. Miller, Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Barefoot Sanders Papers, 1940s-2009, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. “Sanders, Harold Barefoot, Jr.,” Federal Judicial Center (, accessed June 17, 2021.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Darwin Payne, “Sanders, Harold Barefoot, Jr.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022,

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July 16, 2021
July 16, 2021

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