Our Tribute to Professor Charles James Ogletree, Jr., an American Legal Scholar, a Champion of Justice and a Dear Friend.
On August 4, 2023, America and the world lost one of my generation’s most humble, intelligent, and consequential leaders, Professor Charles James Ogletree, Jr.
Harvard University described him as “An intellectual giant, an incredible humanitarian, and a legendary teacher, whose contribution to law and racial equality were unparalleled.” President Barack Obama and First Lady Michell Obama were his students in law school and continued to refer to him as a “true friend.” I called him my brother.
“Tree” (as he was known to his friends) was born the first of seven siblings to tenant farmers in Merced, California. As a child, he found comfort in reading and fishing. He excelled academically and socially throughout his public school experience, serving as student body president of his high school graduating class. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree (with distinction) from Stanford University in 1974 and a master’s degree in political science from Stanford in 1975 while remaining active in student government and the Black Student Union, the same year that he married his college sweetheart, Pamela, and accepted at Harvard Law School, where he graduated with a Juris Doctorate in 1978.
I had the honor of meeting Tree as a fellow student at Harvard Law School, where he was more than a student. He served as president of the Black American Law Students Association, a national association of Black law students during this period. In addition, he worked part-time at local legal offices in the Boston / Cambridge area while excelling in his classes.
After graduating in 1978, Tree had offers to work at several prominent law firms nationwide. However, he moved his family to Washington, DC, to work in the Public Defender’s Office, where he honed his skills as a brilliant lawyer, eventually becoming the Deputy Director of the Public Defender’s Office.
After eight years of serving in the Public Defender’s Office, Harvard Law School asked him to return. Tree accepted and worked at Harvard Law School from 1984 until he retired in 2020. He was there first as a lecturer, then as a professor in 1985, then as the Jesse Climento Professor of Law in 1998, and finally as Vice Dean for Clinical Programs. He also headed the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. He mentored countless law students, including Barack Obama, our first Black President; Michelle Obama, our first Black First Lady; and Ketanji Jackson Brown, our first Black female Supreme Court Justice.
Ever the model of excellence, he continued to practice law while teaching at Harvard Law School. He was lead counsel in several high-profile cases, including Anita Hill and Tupac Shakur, and he joined Johnny Cochran to represent survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Tree was a relentless racial and criminal justice defender, whether the client was prominent or indigent.
Besides teaching students, mentoring colleagues, and representing clients, Tree was an author, a humanitarian, an adviser, a news contributor, a civil rights activist, a husband, a father, a friend, and a hero to us all. Professor Charles James Ogletree, Jr. changed a great many lives. His legacy shall endure as a testament to Tree’s unwavering commitment to justice and equality. This embodiment fills me with a somber yet resolute pride. It is a pride rooted in a young Black boy’s journey from the confines of a segregated community in Merced, California. A journey that defied the constraints of meager resources and limited opportunities, culminating in attaining degrees from the most esteemed institutions in this country; that includes defending people experiencing poverty in our nation’s capital and helping to shape the minds of future leaders. Professor Charles James Ogletree, Jr. learned, fought, led, loved, and indelibly impacted our world forever. My dear friend accomplished these feats, and my heart swells with pride.
This pride is at home in the hearts of his beloved wife, family, and all those who had the honor and privilege of knowing him and those who know of him. It is a sentiment that I extend to you as well, for there is an immeasurable significance in leaving behind a legacy that reverberates among the living. Professor Charles James Ogletree, Jr.’s struggle for our people is a lesson never to be erased—remember the name: Professor Charles James Ogletree, Jr. He is and will always be an American treasure.
You have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. Rest peacefully, my brother; job well done.
We will work to continue your legacy and never forget you.
Yours in the Movement:
The Los Angeles Urban League
For further information regarding Professor Charles James Ogletree, Jr., please see attached website:
Published 8.14.2023 / Revised 10.06.2023