Charles Ogletree, Jr., is considered one of the most tenacious and successful trial lawyers in the United States. The Harvard University professor is a passionate advocate of a defendant's right to a fair trial within the American justice system--a Constitutional right one might find it difficult to receive if a member of a minority group. For several years Ogletree worked in Washington, D.C.'s public defender's office, a difficult area of law which generally attracts only the most ideologically dedicated and stamina-imbued law school graduates. Those experiences were carried over to the Ivy League halls of Harvard Law School, where Ogletree has single-handedly made significant inroads into how students at the country's most prestigious legal training ground view both the African-American community and the criminal justice system.
Ogletree was born on December 31, 1952, to Charles Sr. and Willie Mae Ogletree, the first of their five children. He grew up in a rural northern California community called Merced, which had a small African-American population that lived south of its railroad tracks. His maternal grandparents, known as Big Daddy and Big Mama, were an important influence on the young Ogletree. With his grandfather he would fish for hours, and from Big Mama he learned how to cook and thus, learning self-sufficiency. Both grandparents he would later credit as having a profound influence on his demeanor and tactics as a trial lawyer. The marriage of Ogletree's parents, however, was plagued by periodic violence, and they eventually divorced, although they remained on good terms. A bright child who spent free hours in the public library and brought home good grades from school, his first brushes with the law--especially watching his father being taken away in cuffs after incidents of domestic violence at the Ogletree house--instilled in him a deep distrust of and feelings of powerlessness toward the law enforcement community.
The Ogletree family was part of the migrant worker community around Merced, and when Charles, Jr., became old enough he also began working in the fields, picking figs and other fruit. From this he learned a certain inner competitiveness--every day he would strive to pick more than he had the day before. As an adult, Ogletree compared his humble upbringing with that of his own children, raised in relatively affluent African-American middle-class surroundings: "In the normal course of their lives they meet professors, lawyers, doctors," he recalled for Sara Lawrence in Lightfoot in I've Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation. "Before I got to college I had never met any of these kinds of people." Another incident that occurred in his teens severely impacted Ogletree's views on law, order, and justice, especially for members of the African-American community. In high school he was part of a tight-knit group of young African-American males that were determined to stay out of trouble. All earned good grades, were involved in athletics, and respected Eugene Allen, considered the brightest of the clique. After Allen had a run-in with Merced's high school football coach--and incurred the wrath of the town's white community by dating the daughter of a white judge--Allen was accused of setting fire to the coach's residence. He was convicted and sent to a youth camp, where he was involved in a race riot and charged with the death of a white inmate. Sent to San Quentin for the crime, he was co-charged with killing a prison guard, although the decision was overturned and Allen was removed from Death Row. The sad story of one of his closest friends made Ogletree painfully aware of how difficult it was for young African-American males to receive fair treatment once inside the criminal justice system.
Ogletree himself stayed out of trouble. In 1970, after high school, Ogletree enrolled in Stanford University outside San Francisco. His dormitory marked the first time he had ever had his own room. At college, Ogletree became dismayed by the elitism of the institution. Fortunately, he was also quite near the epicenter of the Black Power movement that had coalesced around San Francisco, the city of Oakland, and the University of California at Berkeley at that point in history. Ogletree became a campus radical, organizing an Afrocentric (though still integrated) dormitory, where he met his future wife, Pamela Barnes. He edited a campus Black Panther newspaper called The Real News and traveled to Africa and Cuba as part of student activist groups.
Ogletree's first intensive experience in the courtroom sparked his intent to pursue trial law as a career. He attended nearly every day of the trial of Black Power activist and Communist Angela Davis. Some of parts of the Davis trial were tedious, Ogletree recalled in I've Known Rivers, but "the process and strategies were fascinating. I sat there wondering how they were going to tie all this together." After graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science from Stanford in 1974, Ogletree stayed on a year to earn a master's degree. At the urging of his soon-to-be wife, he applied to Harvard Law School; the newlyweds moved to the Boston area upon his acceptance and enrollment in the fall of 1975. From the start, Ogletree recalled, he felt unease in the markedly different, monied East Coast enclave. Furthermore, the city was then in the middle of a vicious battle over busing that pitted its ethnic-American communities against the African-American populace. Academia itself was also especially tedious, and at one point he nearly quit the prestigious School of Law. "At Harvard the pressure was on, participation was mandatory, there was always a lot of competition and tension in the air," Ogletree recalled in I've Known Rivers. He survived by closely allying himself with other African-American students and continued his political activism, even becoming national president of the Black Law Students Association.
After receiving a juris doctor degree from Harvard in 1978, Ogletree was hired by the District of Columbia's Public Defender's Service, which provided free legal counsel to those accused of a crime who were unable to afford an attorney guaranteed them by the U.S. Constitution. With wife Pamela and son Charles III (a family made complete with the arrival of daughter Rashida in 1979), Ogletree moved to the nation's capital, also home to some of the most blighted and crime-ridden urban pockets in the country. He had originally thought that perhaps he had not gained very much from his experiences at Harvard, but later asserted that everything he learned came back in surprising ways as he began to argue cases before the bench--and win. Soon Ogletree had gained a reputation as a formidable courtroom presence, although it took him a while to understand that himself. Initially, he would attribute most victories to luck, but then, as he told Lawrence-Lightfoot in I've Known Rivers, "it was only after I kept on winning and began to gain a strong reputation among my peers...that I began to admit to myself that I had a special talent for this work."
Ogletree became known for a cool, collected courtroom demeanor, which he has said was inherited from his grandfather and their fishing expeditions together, during which the elder man would sit impassively for long stretches of time. Ogletree himself took up fishing in his thirties as a means of relaxation from his hectic schedule that not only included his grueling hours in the Public Defender's Service--where he was named director of staff training in 1982--but his teaching position at American University and later Antioch Law School, rounded out by his involvements in numerous professional organizations. After a time Ogletree left the Public Defender's Service, and between 1985 and 1989 Ogletree was a partner in the Washington law firm of Jessamy, Fort, & Ogletree while concurrently serving as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.
In 1986 Ogletree became director of Harvard's introduction to trial advocacy workshops, a program he founded to inject a more clinical, hands-on approach into a curriculum known to be a bit too focused on the theory of law. Through the intensive workshops, students--even if they are not planning a career in trial law--will walk away with a sense that the law can be "an instrument for social and political change...a tool to empower the dispossessed and disenfranchised...and a means to make the privileged more respectful of differences," as Ogletree explained in I've Known Rivers. He also founded and became director of the School's Criminal Justice Institute in 1990, a broad program heavily involved with the poorer communities in Boston, and began a Saturday School so African-American students could learn from other professionals of their own heritage. The conferences are often sold out and well integrated.
Ogletree also gained prominence in 1991 when he was asked by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to write up an investigation into the legal career of a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chief and African-American judge Clarence Thomas, a staunch Republican. The group thought they should cast their support of the presidential nominee for the Supreme Court on the basis of race, even though Thomas's legal rulings and writings consistently seemed to work against the civil rights principles upon which the NAACP had been founded. Ogletree drafted a 30-page report on Thomas that was instrumental in the NAACP's vote of no confidence for the nominee. He later became further embroiled in the battle against Thomas when charges of sexual harassment were leveled against the judge by a law professor and former EEOC subordinate named Anita Hill; Ogletree served as her attorney during the contentious Senate confirmation hearings in the fall of 1991.
The following year, Ogletree's career at Harvard--whose decision- makers had named him assistant professor in 1989--became the subject of controversy when a paper he had submitted to the school's Law Review Journal was called into question by some of the publication's staff. However, the prestigious university's dearth of tenured African-American professors as well as vicious rivalry between political camps among the student body seemed to be behind much of the flap. The Wall Street Journal as well as the New Republic covered the incident, but Ogletree was granted tenure and the Law Review editor censured. The fractious atmosphere that has replaced the elitism of Ogletree's student days at the school make him question his own reasons for staying on. "Am I doing right by my people working here at the university?" he wondered in I've Known Rivers. "This remains an open question."
Ogletree remained with Harvard, however. He became the Jesse Climenko professor of law in 1998, the vice dean for Clinical Programs at Harvard in 2003, and in 2004 he was appointed director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. His work in the legal profession and advocacy for racial justice brought him a great deal of media attention. He became a sought-after expert, appearing as a guest commentator on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, Nightline, and This Week With David Brinkley. He also served as the co-chair of the Reparations Coordinating Committee, a group pursuing a lawsuit to win reparations for descendants of African slaves. The group of distinguished lawyers and other experts on the committee sought to reconcile the past wrongs brought by slavery. His legal work was recognized, and the National Law Journal named him one of the "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America" in 2002.
In addition to legal issues, Ogletree committed himself to other causes. Determined to improve the educational opportunities for minority and needy students, Ogletree established a college scholarship fund for students in Merced, California. He is also a founding member of the Benjamin Bannekrer Charter School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which provides after-school programs to minority children
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