Charles Ogletree Leaves Behind a Profound Legacy

“He could, on any given day, advise the likes of Nelson Mandela, field a call from a U.S. senator, write a brief for a client, meet with students over a late lunch, chair a board meeting for a nonprofit, pray over the telephone with a member of his church, make a pro bono court appearance, edit a chapter for an upcoming book, have an early dinner with a community leader and finish the evening by moderating a Massachusetts gubernatorial debate.” – Harvard law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.

The 1921 Tulsa Massacre stands as one of the worst acts of racial terrorism in the United States since the abolition of slavery.

But it had nearly faded from history until 2003, when the late Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., filed suit on behalf of the victims and their survivors.

Ogletree passed away last week at the age of 70, but the fight for justice in Tulsa lives on. On the day he died, a group of survivors and descendants asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to reinstate their most recent lawsuit, which a lower court dismissed last month.
The case Ogletree launched two decades ago ignited a larger debate about the legacy of slavery and segregation and how the nation should make reparations.

It was my privilege to know and collaborate often over the years with “Tree,” as he was called. We shared the stage for many forums, debates, and panel discussions, and he contributed his invaluable insights to several National Urban League Conferences.

It’s hard to overstate his influence on civil rights and criminal justice, both as a brilliant, dynamic trial attorney, legal scholar, and Harvard law professor. His greatest influence, however, may be his mentorship of the young students who developed into the next generation of leaders – among them the first Black U.S. President, the first Black First Lady, and the first Black woman Supreme Court justice.

As a Harvard law student, President Obama frequently attended Ogletree’s Saturday School, a forum to support Black students and examine critical issues of justice, race, and equity.

Ogletree first came to national attention when he represented Anita Hill as she testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 about the sexual harassment she experienced while working with Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. He represented other famous clients but continued to serve the poor and marginalized people who suffered most from racial discrimination and bias in the criminal justice system.

His argument before the Supreme Court in 1990 led to a unanimous decision that Georgia prosecutors had violated the rights of Black man, convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death, by striking 90% of the Black potential jurors.

Even as his light began to fade with the diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2015, he continued to uplift those around him by speaking out to destigmatize the condition and allay people’s fears.

Ogletree was a rare soul who left a profound impact on the nation, his profession, the institution he served with his whole heart for 35 years, and every individual whose life he touched. We grieve his passing and extend our deepest sympathy to his family and the many friends and students who loved him.

Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.

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