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Charles J. Ogletree Jr., legal giant, 70

Brian Wright O’Connor
Charles J. Ogletree Jr., legal giant, 70
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. PHOTO: DON WEST

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., the renowned Harvard law professor who rose from poverty in a family of itinerant California tenant farmers to make a profound global impact as a teacher, courtroom attorney and social activist, died last week at age 70 after a long and public struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Ogletree passed at home in Odenton, Maryland, where he and his wife Pam had moved to be closer to their daughter in his final years.

Whether mentoring future President Barack Obama in Cambridge classrooms, representing Anita Hill during the bruising Clarence Thomas confirmation battle, taking up the reparations fight, running policy convocations on Martha’s Vineyard or bringing Boston gang members into the ivied halls of Harvard to hear tough truths, the late lawyer and scholar found varied ways to bend the arc of the moral universe.

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of our husband, father, grandfather, and brother,” said the Ogletree family in a statement. “Even though Alzheimer’s robbed him of the extraordinary gifts that made him exceptional in his career, he remained courageous, strong and resilient throughout his journey.”

Hill, who met Ogletree when both stood out as young Black law professors on lily-white faculties, recalled the attorney who stood by her side throughout the searing nomination process, as “a presence of calm in the storm” as conservative and media voices assailed her testimony of sexual impropriety by the high court nominee.

“He understood people who were marginalized by race or class. His experience in the criminal justice system and his understanding of the intersection of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and class were of comfort to me,” said Hill in a phone interview.

The Brandeis professor said Ogletree possessed a nearly unique ability to make complex legal doctrines come alive in courtrooms and classrooms because of his gifts as a storyteller and the compassion he brought to his work as someone who had lived through poverty and uncertainty.

Charles Ogletree (left) with Cory Booker. PHOTO: DON WEST, FILE

“The basis of what drove him was the people involved, the humanity involved, whether it was a legal case, the reparations issue or writing a constitution for South Africa. In every aspect of his career, he was trying to impact what was going on in people’s lives.”

Harvard law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., who studied law under Ogletree and now runs the Charles Hamilton Institute for Race and Justice that Ogletree founded, said his late friend, fondly called “Tree,” brought both a searching intelligence and a passion for fairness and equity to everything he did.

“He was a great lawyer, as we know from his days as a public defender in the District of Columbia. He was a legendary attorney there and in the many high-profile cases he took on as a professor,” said Sullivan. “But he was not just active on national issues. I got to know Boston, Roxbury and Dorchester through Tree. He reached out to people in all communities.”

In a statement released last Saturday, Obama spoke movingly of Ogletree’s role in mentoring generations of law students, including his wife Michelle. “Charles’ reputation preceded him at Harvard Law School,” said Obama. “On campus, people would always talk about this Professor Ogletree and how supportive and encouraging he was.”

Obama recalled Ogletree running “something called ‘Saturday School’ for Black students who didn’t necessarily have the support systems at home to get them through the difficult first years of law school.”

“It was an example of the kind of person Charles has always been: unfailingly helpful and driven by a genuine concern for others,” he added.

Ogletree’s abiding kindness and drive to help those living in the shadows and scraping to get by came from his own experience and deep spiritual faith in the Gospel teachings, said Pam Ogletree in a phone interview earlier this week.

“He often talked about his maternal grandmother – he called her ‘Big Mama’ – reading to him from the Bible as a little boy,” she said. “His faith was what carried him. His love and his compassion were formed in that faith.” The Ogletrees were longtime members of St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge.

Charles Ogletree Jr. (right) with Harry Belafonte after speaking at a health forum sponsored by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, which was founded by Ogletree in 2005. PHOTO: DON WEST

Her husband also took solace in music, especially gospel, which lifted him after 18-hour days of lectures, legal work, conferences and endless calls from friends, families and strangers seeking his counsel. “He loved music of every kind. He was always introducing me to new artists. But he took most of his inspiration from gospel,” she said.

“I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired,” “The Rough Side of the Mountain” and “Praise Is What I Do” were songs “he often played to revive his spirits,” she said.

Ogletree was born in 1952 in Merced, California, in the San Joaquin Valley, the oldest of seven siblings. His parents, who divorced when he was young, picked produce on farms and grew their own. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, where he excelled at football and academics.

His mother, Will Mae Reed Ogletree, taught him to fish, and he took respite in angling expeditions with a bamboo cane pole and makeshift bait to local creeks and lakes with her and his paternal grandfather, “Big Daddy,” according to his wife Pam. The experience left him with a life-long obsession with the sport, leading to legendary outings in the waters around Martha’s Vineyard to cast for stripers and bluefish.

“But long before Charles’ days fishing the Atlantic with Captain Buddy Vanderhoop landing big striped bass on the deck of the Tomahawk with Buddy’s fancy rod-and-reel combos, Charles mastered the art of landing perch and catfish on Merced’s banks with good ol’ bamboo fishing poles,” said Ogletree’s brother Richard.

After a guidance counselor recommended he attend Stanford, a school Ogletree had never heard of, he rode a scholarship to graduation in 1974. He played freshman football, starred in campus theatrical productions, honing his flair for courtroom drama, became active in the Black Student Union and met his future wife, Pamela Barnes.

Ogletree earned a master’s at Stanford in political science before traveling east to attend Harvard Law School. After earning his degree in 1978, he went to Washington as a public defender before his appointment as Harvard law professor in the wake of student protests over a lack of diversity in the faculty.

His close Boston friends included Margaret Burnham, the first Black female judge in Massachusetts. The Ogletrees shared a Martha’s Vineyard home with Burnham and her husband, prominent attorney Max Stern.

“He was a renaissance convener,” said Burnham, “someone who could bring together people from all walks of life. Whether hosting the Obamas at our house or sponsoring conferences at the high school, he created a clamor wherever he went.”

During Boston’s gang wars of the 1990s, Ogletree worked with his long-time friend Miniard Culpepper, a federal attorney and pastor of the Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury, to bring members of the H Block gang to Pound Hall at Harvard Law School for a conversation about their untenable future.

The exchange had a striking effect on the young men, said Culpepper, who was also an Ogletree fishing buddy. “Tree was always fishing to help others,” he said, “to take them to the next level of life.”

Ogletree represented Tupac Shakur in court as well as survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and he led efforts to push reparations for slavery long before it became a popular topic. He also was a friend of Nelson Mandela and helped write South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution.

His work for Anita Hill vaulted him to national prominence and he used that fame as a platform for shining a spotlight on inequities in the society and the criminal justice system. He authored important books on civil rights, race and justice, such as “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America” and coedited “Life Without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty?” and “The Road to Abolition: The Future of Capital Punishment in the United States” with Austin Serat.

He is survived by his wife Pam; his two children, Charles J. Ogletree III and Rashida Ogletree-George; four grandchildren; and four siblings.

Hill said Ogletree’s death should be used as a summoning of energy and focus to the fight for justice at a time affirmative action, civil rights, voting rights and women’s rights are under attack by a super-conservative Supreme Court and hostile political forces.

“Those of us who were fortunate enough to know Charles Ogletree would know that he would want us to use this moment as a call to action,” she said. “The movement towards limiting rather than expanding rights must be stopped, and a restoration of those rights must begin.”

Funeral services for Ogletree will take place 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 19 at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, Maryland. A wake will take place at the church from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 18.  The family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the Boys and Girls Club of Merced County, Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Undergraduate Scholarship Fund at Stanford University, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, or the United Negro College Fund.

Anita Hill, Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Harvard Law School