The Legal Defense Fund (LDF) is deeply saddened at the passing of former Board member Charles J. Ogletree Jr. A renowned professor of law at Harvard Law School, Professor Ogletree, affectionately known as “Tree,” was an outspoken expert and activist on civil rights, particularly with respect to public education, criminal justice, and reparations. Closely associated with the evolution of Critical Race Theory, Tree was a giant in the legal academy and a preeminent constitutional scholar. He played a role in many of the higher-profile racial justice battles of the post-civil rights era, including the Boston school integration crisis and the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The author of several books, he founded the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School and was also honored with the establishment of an eponymous professorship at the school in 2017. Tree served on LDF’s Board of Directors from 2009-2015.
“We mourn the loss of Professor Ogletree, a legal giant who contributed his time and brilliance to so many, including at the Legal Defense Fund,” said LDF President and Director-Counsel, Janai S. Nelson. “Charles Ogletree devoted his life not only to studying and teaching the law, but also to strengthening it. From his campus activism to his time as a public defender, from the Boston busing crisis to the Tulsa reparations case, Professor Ogletree was an academic not content to remain in the ivory tower, bridging the gap between theory and practice to the benefit of countless Americans and especially Black communities. His countless accomplishments and contributions to the field of law and racial justice advocacy will be studied and remembered for generations. His legacy is immeasurable and he will be deeply missed. I extend our profound condolences to his family and loved ones, including his beloved daughter Rashida Ogletree who served as a lawyer at the Legal Defense Fund.”
“Professor Ogletree was not only a luminary of the racial justice community, he was also a teacher and a mentor who personally invested in creating a new generation of warriors for justice,” said LDF Associate Director-Counsel Tona Boyd. “While his loss will be profoundly felt by all those who were fortunate to benefit from his brilliance, warmth, and commitment to bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice, we must aspire to live up to the legacy he created. I will miss him dearly and will continue to endeavor to honor him in the mission to realize a more just, equal, and perfect union.”
Charles James Ogletree Jr. was born in 1952 in Merced, California, in the state’s Central Valley, a region whose harsh labor conditions and reliance on low-wage migrant labor were memorably depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath — a portrait, Ogletree later recalled, that “remained very much a reality” when he was growing up. The child of seasonal farmworkers, Ogletree’s family struggled to make ends meet, moving from one cramped apartment to another throughout Ogletree’s youth.
Despite financial hardships — and despite the racial divisions that afflicted Merced —Ogletree and his family took comfort in their community. “In south Merced, as in many other African American communities contending with segregation at the time, one found ways to create one’s own centers of excellence, in a community short on resources,” he wrote in All Deliberate Speed, his personal history of growing up as a beneficiary of Brown v. Board. He fondly recalled the local institutions where the Black citizens of Merced gathered, shopped, and worshipped. Today, a courthouse in Merced bears Ogletree’s name, following the passage of a bill that was introduced by former California assemblymember Adam C. Gray — in collaboration with the NAACP — and passed by California Governor Gavin Newsom in 2022.
But the most important institutions in Ogletree’s upbringing were public schools. Although neither of his parents had finished high school, they urged him to take his education seriously. His grandmother’s frequent recitations from the Bible awakened a love of reading in Ogletree, a love fueled by his elementary school’s librarian, who kept him regularly stocked with new books. “Books were my addiction, and I could not feed it fast enough,” Ogletree wrote. “… It was becoming apparent to others around me, but not to me, that reading would be my ticket out of poverty and despair.”
Reading also deepened Ogletree’s understanding of racial injustice in the United States. “These books awakened a consciousness that I didn’t realize was within me,” he wrote in his memoir. “…I used this knowledge to take on new challenges in school. My generation, having been sheltered from much of the discrimination that our parents had experienced, took a different approach on issues of race. We did not fear white people. We did not feel unequal. We had no reluctance to speak and be heard.”
Ogletree certainly made his voice heard at Stanford University, where he matriculated as a freshman in the fall of 1971. He soon became involved in campus activism and politics, organizing a student group in support of political prisoners and chairing the Black Students Union. When the University announced that the speaker at Ogletree’s commencement ceremony would be Daniel Patrick Moynihan — who a decade earlier had published a controversial report that reinforced many racist stereotypes about African Americans — Ogletree and his peers faced a difficult decision: “Do we attend graduation since it means so much to our families and us? Or do we boycott out of respect for our families and as a tribute to them?” The group decided to hold a separate graduation ceremony for Black students — now a Stanford tradition — and to attend the entirety of the regular commencement except for Moynihan’s speech.
Ogletree went on to Harvard Law School, arriving in Boston just as the city was engulfed in bitter conflict over orders to desegregate the public schools. Ogletree soon became involved. “Just across the river, a race war was in progress, and I could not sit in the relatively obscure quiet of my law school classroom and ignore it,” he recalled. He and some of his fellow law students began volunteering at the local NAACP chapter, helping families file claims of racial harassment against their children.
Busing wasn’t the only legal controversy Ogletree was involved in during law school. As national chairman of the Black Law Students Association, he advised Harvard Law Professor and former Solicitor General Archibald Cox on the issues at stake in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which was argued before the Supreme Court in fall of 1977. Cox had been hired by the University of California, Davis to defend its use of racial quotas in its admissions program. Ogletree also traveled to Washington to meet with incumbent Solicitor General Wade McCree, and he was present for the arguments. Although the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in general, it struck down the use of racial quotas, a decision Ogletree lamented. “Put simply, Bakke marked the end of the radical challenges to the status quo. … With one decision, the Court accelerated the process of undoing Brown.”
“I mourn the passing of my dear friend, my brother in struggle and my stalwart colleague, Charles Ogletree. I have known “Tree” since our law school days, when he was the president of the National Black American Law Students Association (now BLSA) and I served on its Board,” said Former LDF President and Director-Counsel Ted Shaw. “During that time, Tree led us in opposition to the Bakke case, which was in the Supreme Court. It was apparent then that he was a born leader with a powerful intellect. Tree lived an extraordinary life — D.C. public defender, public intellectual, Harvard Law School professor, teacher of and mentor for generations of lawyers-in-training including Barack and Michelle Obama, attorney for Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas nomination hearings, attorney for survivors of the Tulsa massacre, advocate for black reparations, LDF Board member, and so much more. We walked a long way through life together. Now he walks with the ancestors. I am diminished by his passing, but I am comforted that peace has come to him. My thoughts are with Pam, and with Rashida, Charles III and the grandchildren and family. I know that they will be sustained by their memories of Tree as a husband, father, grandfather, and one of our great ones.
After graduating in 1978, he moved to Washington, D.C. to represent indigent clients with the city’s Public Defender Service, where he served on the hiring committee and was sworn in to practice before the Supreme Court. In 1985, he left Washington to become a professor at Harvard Law School. But Ogletree’s engagement with public life did not end with the beginning of his career in academia. When President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, Ogletree was approached by Wade Henderson, the NAACP’s legal director, to write a report on Thomas’s legal background and philosophy. Ogletree concluded that Thomas “would embrace few, if any, of the NAACP’s core principles. Indeed, I was convinced that he would be hostile to them.” Ogletree also served as a lead counsel to lawyer Anita Hill during her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of Justice Thomas’s confirmation hearings. Her testimony, which described allegations of sexual harassment against Justice Thomas, became a focus of national attention, and subjected Hill to vicious personal attacks.
“For so many lawyers Tree was the gold standard of what we could be as modern civil rights lawyers and scholars. He could do it all, and that made many of us believe that we could as well,” said former LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill. “Tree also set the standard on mentorship. He was a legend at PDS, at Harvard, and in our profession, but he had time and gave an ear to so many who sought his counsel. His loss feels monumental, but we are so grateful to have had his example and guidance.”
In the 1990s, Ogletree and his wife, Pamela, were among the founders of the Benjamin Banneker Charter School in Cambridge, which focused on educating the community’s African American students. He helped a group of his Harvard Law students found Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL), a nonprofit devoted to improving academic achievement in underserved communities. He became involved in efforts to secure reparations for 150 survivors and nearly 200 descendants of victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, joining a team that filed a 200-page complaint against the city that laid out in great detail the harms done to generations of Black citizens of Tulsa as a result of the attacks. And in 2005, he launched the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law. Named for Thurgood Marshall’s mentor, the architect of the legal strategy that culminated in Brown v. Board, the Houston Institute is designed to foster innovative legal approaches to ensuring equal justice for all Americans. Ogletree was also legal representation for the rapper Tupac Shakur.
All the while, Ogletree continued to teach at Harvard Law, mentoring countless students who would go on to eminent careers in the private and public sectors — including Barack and Michelle Obama, who counted Ogletree as a friend throughout their time in the White House.
Throughout his career, Ogletree remained clear-eyed but determined in the face of America’s ongoing struggle to fulfill the promise set forth in Brown v. Board, a decision he found both transformative and, after decades of pushback, inadequate. “We must not let ourselves be deterred from achieving what so many of our forefathers achieved, in the face of even more formidable challenges,” he wrote. “If Africans could survive the innumerable horrors of slavery, and if freed slaves could survive the cruelty and repugnance of the Jim Crow system, we as a nation can, must, and will survive the current manifestations of Brown’s failures.”
“Charles Ogletree possessed in abundance what is too often in short supply: his humanity was in full bloom,” said former LDF President and Director-Counsel Elaine Jones. “He wore his dedication to his fellow humans as a badge of honor. He was committed to equal justice, fair play, deep compassion, and excellence. Those of us fortunate enough to interact with “Tree” will never forget him. There are some lights that are simply never extinguished. His is one of them.”
Professor Ogletree was the author of several important books on race and justice, including Life without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty? (NYU Press, 2012), co-edited with Professor Austin Sarat of Amherst College. Other publications include: The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class, and Crime in America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), The Road to Abolition: The Future of Capital Punishment in the United States and When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice, also co-edited with Austin Sarat. Ogletree’s historical memoir, All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education, was published by W.W. Norton & Company in April 2004. Professor Ogletree also co-authored Beyond the Rodney King Story: An Investigation of Police Conduct in Minority Communities (Northeastern University Press 1995).
He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious ABA Spirit of Excellence Award in recognition of his many contributions to the legal profession. He was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for the National Black Law Students Association, where he served as National President from 1977-1978. Professor Ogletree also received the first ever Rosa Parks Civil Rights Award given by the City of Boston, the Hugo A. Bedau Award given by the Massachusetts Anti-Death Penalty Coalition, and Morehouse College’s Gandhi, King, Ikeda Community Builders Prize. He has also received honorary doctorates from several universities and colleges including Cambridge College, Wilberforce University, the University of Miami, the New England School of Law, Lincoln College, Tougaloo College, Mount Holyoke College, and Amherst College.
Ogletree is survived by his wife, Pamela, two children, Charles Ogletree III and Rashida Ogletree-George, and grandchildren.