Ogletree was a peerless champion for justice

He wasn't working, he was 'answering a calling'

THE SUNDAY MORNING drive to Dorchester from the iHeart Radio studios just north of Boston was uneventful except for the presence of political royalty in the car. I sat slightly slumped in the back of the black SUV. The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. sat in the front of the vehicle, riding shotgun.

As we headed toward morning worship where Jackson would preach at the Grace Church of All Nations in the Four Corners neighborhood of Boston, the civic scion of Martin Luther King Jr. and former presidential candidate paused to make a call to Charles Ogletree, who, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, had recently announced his retirement from Harvard Law School, where he brilliantly mentored two generations of students, including Barack and Michelle Obama.

The conversation between Ogletree and Jackson was as short as it was tender and genuine, intimating years of closeness so that excessive verbiage was unnecessary.

“Tree, listen man,” Jackson plaintively concluded before hanging up his cellphone. “Stay in touch. Take care, doc. All right.” Jackson then adjusted in his seat and gave a small sigh, falling into a brief silence.

Charles Ogletree was known affectionately as “Tree” by his closest friends. He died last week as a result of a disease that attacked his capacious intellect and the public compassion for which he became legendary.

The exchange between Ogletree and Jackson is worth noting because both devoted much of their lives to justice in the post-civil rights era, where the gains they played important roles securing—such as affirmative action and voting rights—have in recent years been eviscerated by the Supreme Court.

Last month, Jackson retired from the Rainbow Push Coalition he founded in the aftermath of King’s assassination. He will become a university professor. Ogletree’s death, however, leaves a void in the nation’s social justice matrix the size of great whales.

Ogletree was an extraordinary attorney, legal architect, and advocate whose instinct for justice propelled his activism in the streets and the high-end suites. At Harvard Law School, he taught, among other things, the US Constitution, garnering an expertise that led Nelson Mandela to tap him to help in writing South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution. By all accounts, Ogletree performed the task with aplomb.

Never tempted by the academic fads that descended upon law schools as new currency in the 2000s, Ogletree rejected postmodernist legalisms which were so much solipsistic babble. Instead, he kept his eyes on the practical routes toward achieving Black social ambitions related to law, policy, and integration.

He was peerless in his generation among civil rights attorneys bent on breaking down the apartheid conditions that had calcified in American society after the end of slavery. Unlike his idols Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, who proved their abilities at using the Constitution in ways that expanded minority rights, Ogletree was a leader among a vanguard of Black lawyers who were acutely aware that Black rights were always held suspect in the larger white world.

This became evident as Ogletree focused on reparations, which consumed him. His lawsuit against the federal government connected to the white-led Tulsa riots against local Black businesses in that city surely fueled Ogletree’s purposes toward attacking the porous nature of institutionalized white supremacy.

Born in the early 1950s, Ogletree’s life was shaped by the roiling social trauma he experienced each decade of his formative years, including the lynching of Emmett Till, Bloody Sunday in Selma, the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin King, as well as the Vietnam War, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the scandal of Watergate. Such impressions undoubtedly provided a pathway for clear thinking about how to maximize the artifices of law for social reconstruction, which was at the center of his lifelong efforts.

Ogletree was an American legal colossus whose successes extended well beyond Harvard Yard, ranging across the divergent spheres of voting rights law, torts, criminal defense, and representation on behalf a broad range of Americans, including the high and the low in society, from Anita Hill to miscreants he emphatically believed deserved a fair trial.

“We all know he took Anita Hill’s call and Nelson Mandela’s call, but he also took calls from members of the community,” said David Harris, founding managing director of the Charles Hamilton Institute at Harvard Law School that Ogletree founded.

“I never had the feeling he was working,” said Harris, who was an Ogletree point person on the Harvard campus for 14 years. “He was answering a calling deeply guided by faith. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s more than his well-known accomplishments. It’s the person he was that was most important to me and, I think, to the world he served.”

Ogletree’s youth was almost waif-like, so deep was the poverty he experienced as a child in Merced, California. His father was a migrant worker and his mother a homemaker.

Attorney Charles Walker, a trusted friend and fishing partner, who met Ogletree in Boston in the 1970s while attending law school, described his youth as Dickensian.

“He would show up at school not washed and in dirty clothes. His teacher felt so sorry for him and would bring him things to wear and allow him to wash up in the school bathroom,” said Walker, whose two daughters would later intern for Ogletree at Harvard and go on to become lawyers.

In 2010, Ogletree appeared at the award ceremonies at Four Seasons in Boston as part of the New Democracy Coalition’s award ceremonies where the actor Danny Glover was being feted. Ogletree’s remarks that night certainly lauded Glover for his life’s work as an activist who advocated reparations.

At one point during his remarks Ogletree poignantly evoked the Old Testament Bible verse in Isaiah where the prophet begs the Lord to send him to the work of justice.

“Lord, send me,” said Ogletree in his rich baritone.

He stood, bow-legged, there at the podium with Glover beaming at his side, speaking in contrite and confessing flourishes that revealed his obvious sensitivities at arriving at the pinnacle of Black leadership he sought. Send me. It stunned some in the audience to silence.

The world will miss Ogletree, but we will never doubt why he was sent to benefit us all or why he took up challenges that plague our social order. We are better for it.

Meet the Author

Stay in touch, Tree.

Kevin Peterson is the founder of the New Democracy Coalition and adjunct faculty at Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.