Charles J. Ogletree Jr., 70, Dies; at Harvard Law, a Voice for Equal Justice
A mentor to the Obamas and many others, he was renowned for his work in both the classroom and the courtroom, taking cases on behalf of the famous and the indigent alike.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor who helped reframe debates around criminal justice, school desegregation and reparations during the 1990s and 2000s, all the while mentoring a new generation of Black lawyers that included President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, died on Friday at his home in Odenton, Md. He was 70.
Colette Phillips, a representative of the Ogletree family, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Professor Ogletree was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2015 and publicly announced his condition a year later.
A son of California tenant farmers and the first in his family to graduate from high school, Professor Ogletree rose from poverty to become one of the most prominent civil rights lawyers in the country, leaving a mark on the courtroom and the classroom.
As a litigator, he defended clients both famous and unknown, including Tupac Shakur and the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, whom he helped to sue the city and the state of Oklahoma for restitution in 2003.
“He was determined to see that Black people were treated fairly in the courts, whether they were an Anita Hill or a Tupac or an indigent person in the streets of Boston,” Henry Louis Gates Jr., a close friend and fellow scholar at Harvard, said in a phone interview.
As a professor at Harvard Law School, whose faculty he joined in 1985, Professor Ogletree expanded its clinical training efforts, especially in public and indigent defense. Soon after arriving he founded the Criminal Justice Institute, which offers students the opportunity to work in juvenile and district courts around Boston.
He also created what he called Saturday School, an informal program open to all but aimed at Black students who might need extra support on Harvard’s mostly white campus. He dispensed advice, offered tutoring and brought in a string of well-known speakers, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the philosopher Cornel West and the actor Danny Glover.
Among the many attendees at Saturday School was Mr. Obama, who looked to Professor Ogletree as a mentor and continued to rely on him for advice long after he graduated from Harvard Law. During his 2008 campaign for president, Mr. Obama spoke to him several times a week.
“On the campaign trail, I’d get lots of emails when things were going well,” Mr. Obama said in a videotaped address in 2021. “But Charles would always offer encouragement when things weren’t going well. To me that was the sign of a true friend.”
Professor Ogletree, known to his friends as Tree, rocketed to national attention in 1991, when he served as the lead counsel to Ms. Hill after she accused Clarence Thomas, then a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, of sexual harassment. Along with legal advice, he helped Ms. Hill devise a media strategy, including holding a news conference to announce that she had passed a lie-detector test.
He sat directly behind Ms. Hill during her televised testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, high-profile exposure that led to a sideline career as a public intellectual and legal commentator.
Throughout the 1990s Professor Ogletree moderated a series on legal ethics for PBS, and in 1994 NBC hired him as an on-air analyst during the O.J. Simpson trial. He predicted, correctly, that it would end in a not-guilty verdict, at a time when most people in the news media were sure that Mr. Simpson would be convicted of murder.
Professor Ogletree argued that the news media’s coverage of the Simpson case was indicative of its coverage of Black Americans in general. Black people, he said, were rarely given the benefit of the doubt, a bias that in turn facilitated police and legal misconduct.
“If I’m dressed in a knit cap and hooded jacket, I’m probable cause,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1994. “Blacks are very skeptical of being treated fairly.”
In 2003, he joined the lawyers Johnnie Cochran, who had represented Mr. Simpson, and Willie Gray in a lawsuit demanding restitution for a group of survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which white mobs destroyed the city’s prosperous Black neighborhood, Greenwood, and killed hundreds of Black residents in the process.
The suit was dismissed, but in filing it Professor Ogletree did much to revive awareness of what had been a largely forgotten atrocity in American history — as well as to advance the conversation around what the country owed its Black citizens.
Professor Ogletree was better known as a practitioner of the law than as a scholar, but he made a number of contributions to the field of civil rights jurisprudence. His most notable effort was “All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education” (2004), a combination memoir, history and critique of what he viewed as the Supreme Court’s failure to follow through on the promises of the Brown decision.
“As much as we think we have legally solved the problem of race,” he told The Boston Globe in 2004, “as a practical matter we are still confronted with the same problems now that we faced 50 years ago, and it’s shocking that many of the communities that were integrated after 1954 are more segregated than they were then.”
Though the book was widely hailed, its success was marred by the revelation that Professor Ogletree had inadvertently plagiarized six paragraphs from a book on the same subject by a Yale law professor, Jack M. Balkin.
Professor Ogletree apologized, and an investigation by Harvard found that the incident had been accidental.
Charles James Ogletree Jr. was born on Dec. 31, 1952, in Merced, Calif., the oldest of seven siblings. His father and mother, Will Mae (Reed) Ogletree, were tenant farmers, picking peaches, apricots, grapes and figs around the Central Valley. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother found a job as an administrator at Merced Junior College in the valley.
His family was poor, at times desperately so, moving from run-down house to run-down house. Among his few respites were reading and fishing, using cane stalks and wheat-ball bait to catch carp and perch.
His love for fishing stayed with him the rest of his life — he was among the best and best-known anglers of the summer residents in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. In 2011, he won the island’s Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby in the boat/bluefish category.
“He was a master of the art and science of fishing,” Professor Gates said. “He might have been compassionate and merciful to the accused, but not to the fish.”
Charles excelled in Merced’s public school, both academically and as the student body president. But when a guidance counselor suggested that he apply to Stanford, two hours away, he at first demurred, having never heard of it and thinking the man meant Stamford, Conn.
He arrived at Stanford in the fall of 1970, a time when the Black Power movement was sweeping across the Bay Area. He became active in the Black Student Union as well as student government, and in his junior year led a contentious but ultimately successful push for a campus dormitory focused on Black students.
The experience helped him focus his passion for racial justice, but also improve his negotiating skills.
“He was always willing to sit down and talk and try to craft a remedy,” Reggie Turner, a former fellow student who befriended Professor Ogletree on their first day, said in a phone interview. “Many of us were there with questions. Alone, Charles was seeking answers.”
At Stanford he also met his future wife, Pamela Barnes. They married in 1975.
She survives him, as do his son, Charles J. Ogletree III; his daughter, Rashida Ogletree-George; his brothers Richard and Robert; his sisters Rosemarie Jacobs and Taalia Hasan; and four grandchildren. His brother Curtis Reed and his sister Barbara Scoggins died.
Professor Ogletree received a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1974 and a master’s degree in the same subject a year later. He applied to Harvard Law School at his wife’s encouragement and graduated in 1978.
He then moved to Washington, where he worked in the city’s public defender’s office and taught as an adjunct professor at American University and the University of the District of Columbia.
Within a few years he had developed a reputation as a fierce, brilliant defender of indigent clients, and by the time he left to teach at Harvard he was the office’s deputy director.
Even as he settled into academia, Professor Ogletree continued to take on cases. He defended Mr. Shakur in criminal and civil cases, as well as a poor Georgia man who had been sentenced to death after prosecutors rejected 90 percent of potential Black jurors. In 1990, Mr. Ogletree gave the oral argument before the court, which overturned the case in a unanimous decision.
He remained connected to Washington as a member of the board of trustees of the University of the District of Columbia until 2005, when he left that post to focus on a new project, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law.
Named for the school’s first Black graduate, the institute researches equal justice and civil rights issues in the legal system and, in that vein, represents the summation of Professor Ogletree’s career.
After learning he had Alzheimer’s in 2015, Professor Ogletree was forthcoming about it, saying he was publicly announcing it to help destigmatize the disease.
“I want to be a spokesperson,” he told The Boston Globe in 2016. “I want to tell people, Don’t be afraid of it.”
By 2019 the disease had advanced far enough that his wife decided she needed help with his care. They moved that year from Cambridge, Mass., to Maryland, to be close to their daughter.