Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree Jr., ‘Renaissance Lawyer’ and Staunch Civil Rights Defender, Dies at 70 | News
Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard Law School professor emeritus internationally renowned as a civil rights scholar and litigator who advocated for equality and social justice, died on Aug. 4 at his home in Odenton, Maryland.
The cause of death was Alzheimer’s disease, according to Harvard Law Today, the Law School bulletin. Ogletree was diagnosed with the disease in May 2015 and announced his diagnosis to the public in July 2016.
Ogletree famously represented lawyer Anita Hill when she accused Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, of sexual harassment. His other clients included rapper Tupac Shakur and the descendants of the 1921 Tulsa race riots — who sought reparations through lawsuits against the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma.
As an educator, Ogletree mentored a generation of Law School students — including former U.S. President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama. In a public statement on Ogletree’s death, Obama remembered Ogletree as “unfailingly helpful, and driven by a genuine concern for others.”
“Charles’ reputation preceded him at Harvard Law School. On campus, people would always talk about this Professor Ogletree and how supportive and encouraging he was,” Obama wrote, adding that he and his wife had “always been able to count on Charles’s support, often when we needed it the most.”
In the later parts of his career, Ogletree assumed a role as a public intellectual, moderating panel discussions on a TV show called “Ethics in America” and serving as a legal commentator for NBC News on the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Ogletree was one of few analysts who correctly predicted that Simpson would be acquitted.
In an emailed statement, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson ’92 wrote that Ogletree “was a role model who inspired legions of students to seek to improve our criminal justice system and make our world a better place.”
“He was a mentor to me and countless others, and his impact cannot be overstated,” she added. “His legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of the many young people he encouraged to study law, promote justice, and cherish civil rights.”
Theodore V. Wells Jr., a member of the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — and a close friend of Ogletree since they met as Law School students more than four decades ago, said Ogletree was “a true lawyer’s lawyer.”
“He wasn’t just an academic. He wasn’t just a legal practitioner. He was a Renaissance lawyer who played so many different roles,” Wells said.
‘A Child of the Civil Rights Movement’
Ogletree, a Merced, California, native, was born to seasonal farmworkers on Dec. 31, 1952. In recognition of his contributions to the law, a courthouse in his hometown was renamed after him in February.
Harvard Law School professor David B. Wilkins ’77, a friend and colleague of Ogletree, said Ogletree never forgot “his humble roots.”
“No matter how important or how many famous people — including the Obamas and Anita Hill and so many people — who he interacted with, he always remembered that the most important people were the people he could give a voice to who otherwise would have no voice,” Wilkins said.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1978, Ogletree moved to Washington, D.C., where he joined the District of Columbia Public Defender Service. Ogletree quickly established himself as an elite defense attorney and after a seven-year stint at the organization, rose to the role of deputy director.
“He did more than represent [his clients] in court,” Wilkins said, adding that Ogletree would give his phone number out to clients and tell them “to call him any time of the day or night, not just about their case but if they were out or they were in trouble or they needed help.”
“He was always there — that’s the kind of person he was,” Wilkins added.
In 1985, Ogletree returned as a lecturer to Harvard Law School, where he became a tenured professor in 1993. While at Harvard, he became a leading authority on civil rights and the study of race and the law.
Ogletree remained deeply committed to social justice and, in 1990, founded the Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute, a clinic program through which law students represent indigent Boston-area clients in criminal court.
In an emailed statement, Harvard University Professor and friend Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. wrote that CJI was one way Ogletree sought to “translate the theories of jurisprudence into the practice of social justice” by effectively “bringing Harvard Law School to the streets.”
Ogletree also founded the Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice in 2005, an organization that seeks to address systemic inequalities and advocates for racial justice.
“Charles was somebody who saw himself as a child of the civil rights movement,” said Kenneth W. Mack, a Harvard Law School professor and friend. “And I think he saw himself as carrying it forward — that’s really his legacy.”
“When we were at Harvard Law School, our mentor was a guy named Professor Derrick Bell,” said Wells, the Harvard Corporation member, referring to the eminent civil rights lawyer and scholar of race and the law. “What Charles wanted to do was be the Derrick Bell of his generation and he became that.”
In 2017, a year after Ogletree announced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the Law School hosted an event that gathered hundreds of people to celebrate his contributions to the law and announce an endowed professorship in his name.
“His extraordinary contributions stretch from his work as a practicing attorney advancing civil rights, criminal defense, and equal justice to the change he brought to Harvard Law School as an impactful institution builder to his generous work as teacher and mentor who showed our students how law can be an instrument for change,” Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 wrote in an email to Law School affiliates announcing Ogletree’s death.
Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor emeritus whose office was adjacent to Ogletree’s “for decades,” described Ogletree as “one of the greatest lawyers, advocates, and teachers that I’ve known.”
“He’s just a remarkable, remarkable man who transformed Harvard Law School,” Dershowitz said.
‘An Enormous Influence’
When Tommy Amaker became the Harvard men’s basketball head coach in 2007, Charles Ogletree was “at the top of the list” of people he knew he “had better find and meet.”
What started out as a breakfast between the two at Henrietta’s Table in The Charles Hotel soon became a regular occurrence and the group — dubbed “Tommy’s Kitchen Cabinet” — grew to include Black leaders at Harvard, student athletes, and the larger Harvard community.
Tommy Amaker and Charles Ogletree at Henrietta’s Table in The Charles Hotel, where Ogletree often met with Black leaders and students at Harvard. By Courtesy of Tommy Amaker
“Now, we have a group of people — of probably 75 to 80 — that are part of this and we meet once a month for breakfast and we still do it at the Henrietta’s Table,” Amaker said.
Since its 2007 inception, the monthly breakfast — now called The Breakfast Club — has had a distinguished roster of guests, including former President Obama, and hosts discussions of social issues like race and education.
“That’s all because of — again — the relationship that Professor Ogletree was so willing to extend and wrap his arms around me as the coach here,” Amaker said, adding that Ogletree had also become “an enormous influence” to the basketball program.
In 2020, the men’s basketball program established the Charles Ogletree Humanitarian Award as an annual award for the player who “embodies” Ogletree’s “devotion and commitment to selfless service.”
“In my time here at Harvard, I have been incredibly fortunate to be a part of many meaningful moments – championships, graduations, ceremonies,” Amaker said in a press release at the time. “None are more meaningful to me personally than having the honor of announcing the Charles Ogletree Humanitarian Award.”
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. poses for a picture with Howard Manly, the former executive editor of the Bay State Banner, and Tommy Amaker. By Courtesy of Tommy Amaker
The Breakfast Club was just one of a number of ways through which Ogletree engaged with Harvard and Cambridge. Perhaps most notably, Ogletree organized a weekly Saturday School program that aimed to support Black law students but eventually became popular among students of all backgrounds.
In a 2012 conversation with The Crimson’s Fifteen Minutes Magazine, Ogletree said that Saturday School “was a precatory class for students to understand how to brief cases, how to articulate ideas in class, how to prepare to take exams, and how to become good students.”
“There would be a substantial number of students on Saturday mornings — at Saturday school — and oftentimes, it would be debates and very vigorous discussion and it was a lot of fun and I think a lot of people got a lot out of it,” recalled Randall L. Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor and friend.
“I remember that in particular because I think that that really does show — again — some of the most attractive facets of his persona — again — his generosity with his energy, his generosity with his time, his focus on students, but Saturday School was one of his real innovations and one of the things that I’m sure people will remember with real fondness,” Kennedy added.
In addition to his work with students at Harvard, Ogletree was also one of the founders of the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School — which serves students from kindergarten through sixth grade — in Cambridge.
“Charles was incredibly giving of himself to other people. He is probably the most giving person in that regard who I know in academia,” said Mack, the Harvard Law School professor.
A Source of ‘Gravitas’
Harvard University Professor Annette Gordon-Reed remembers Ogletree as a “very gentle, kind person,” recalling one instance of his kindness to her daughter.
“We were at a panel of alumni events and she came over and he was asking her about what she wanted to do with her life and so forth,” Gordon-Reed said. “And he took her hand and took her over to a person who he knew was interested in the kinds of things that she wanted to get involved in.”
Ogletree’s generosity extended to his fishing hobby as well, said Harvard Business School professor and friend Rosabeth M. Kanter.
“He loved to fish and he left his house unlocked and had a lot of fish — mostly bluefish — in the freezer and anybody could come and take some fish,” Kanter said.
According to Kenneth C. Frazier, the executive chairman of pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. and one of Ogletree’s law school study group mates, “people gravitated towards Charles” as far back as during his days at the Law School.
Ogletree’s interpersonal skills, Frazier explained, helped him get elected as the president of the National Black Law Students Association while a law student at Harvard — whose students Frazier said were “thought of as elitist” and “ highly unlikely” to get elected to the board.
“But as people around the country got to know Tree, they quickly realized that he’s a person who detests pretext and that he had no use for it — certainly no need for it,” Frazier said, adding that Ogletree’s “gravitas” was something that carried over to their law school touch football team as well.
Frazier also said that Ogletree was the person who ensured that in the midst of serious studying, “there was always going to be a lighthearted moment” to be “relaxed and informal.”
“Tree was as kind and compassionate as he was brilliant,” Frazier said.