“Tree had everyone’s backs; he saw the potential in everyone and sought to nurture it.”
So said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard and professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, and one of Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree’s many colleagues, admirers, and friends. Charles Ogletree, who died August 4, was one of our nation’s preeminent legal scholars and a lifelong champion for racial and social justice. Many of his friends have noted “Tree” was an appropriate nickname for a man who felt like a giant, standing tall and steadfast and protecting and nurturing others around him. This always included his students, especially the Black students who attended the beloved “Saturday School” enrichment sessions he led at Harvard Law School. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were both among his brilliant mentees.
As President Obama remembered: “Eventually, Saturday School became so popular that students of every background began showing up to hear Charles explain things in a way they could understand. It was an example of the kind of person Charles has always been: unfailingly helpful, and driven by a genuine concern for others.” This concern extended far beyond his own circles. I am especially grateful for his legacy as a steadfast champion of nurturing all children’s potential and embracing proven child development strategies before children, especially poor children of color, ended up in the criminal justice system.
He grew up poor himself as the child and grandchild of farm workers in Merced, California, the oldest of seven siblings, and the first in his family to graduate from high school. His parents separated when he was young and he moved between family members’ households often. But he loved to read, finding freedom and escape in piles of library books read by flashlight, and as a self-identified “Brown baby” who benefited from the doors opened by Brown v. Board of Education he understood the impact access to education made in his own life: “To me, it is the key that turns things in the right direction. Educating every child makes an enormous amount of difference.”
When a high school guidance counselor first suggested he apply to Stanford University, two hours from home, he had not yet heard of it. But he took the counselor’s advice and was accepted with a scholarship. He would later remember that on his way to start his freshman year he thought he had a flat tire and actually turned around and went home, but was surprised by what happened next: “When I got back to my house, my brothers and my sister had moved my bed out completely. I said, ‘What’s going on here?!’ and they said, ‘You’re the first to go from high school to college and we want you to succeed.’ I had no choice.” He turned back around and he did indeed succeed, first at Stanford, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and then at Harvard Law School before beginning his long and storied career. Just as he’d been a role model for his younger siblings, he became one for countless others.
Throughout it all he used his talents to help make sure other young people could also receive fair access to education and opportunity. He testified before Congress, wrote, and spoke often on the need for juvenile justice reform and positive interventions for at-risk children, and moderated a Children’s Defense Fund conference panel around the shared mission of ending the Cradle to Prison Pipeline® crisis. As he said in one interview: “It’s one thing to talk about trying to change the way we look at children. It’s another thing to give it some teeth so that it makes a big difference . . . If we do this, if we really embrace this . . . we will save a generation of children from what others have experienced in the past, and we will create a generation of smart, healthy, excited, energetic, competent, and resourceful young leaders for tomorrow.”
Charles Ogletree had a clear vision for how our nation could be better and more just for everyone, and he spent his life fighting for that vision and teaching others the tools they needed to join him. He often quoted one of his favorite gospel songs:
I don’t feel no ways tired,
I’ve come too far from where I started from.
Nobody told me that the road would be easy,
I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.