Professor Charles Ogletree Jr., a prolific lawyer, advocate, scholar, and educator who endeavored to shed light on our nation’s history of racial injustice and its pernicious evolution in the criminal legal system, died today at age 70.
Charles Ogletree became a lawyer because, he said, “A jury verdict changed my life.” The first in his family to attend college and the son of a poor farmer in California, he was then an undergraduate student at Stanford when he attended the politically motivated trial of Angela Davis. Davis, a Black professor and prominent advocate for social justice, had been wrongly accused of murder and kidnapping, and was acquitted by an all white jury in 1972. For Professor Ogletree, the surprising verdict was a gateway to making change in and through the law.
After attending law school at Harvard, he was an extremely talented criminal defense attorney who became legendary at the Public Defense Service in Washington, D.C., considered the nation’s premier public defender office. In 1990, Charles Ogletree teamed with EJI Director Bryan Stevenson to represent an indigent Black man on Georgia’s death row who had been convicted by an all-white jury after the prosecutor struck 90% of the Black people qualified to serve on the jury. The case, Ford v. Georgia, went to the U.S. Supreme Court where the Court ruled unanimously that the condemned man’s rights had been violated following Professor Ogletree’s oral argument.
He became an educator after his time as a public defender, serving as a professor at Harvard Law School for 30 years, and continued to provide legal representation in the service of social justice, including supporting litigation in Graham v. Florida to end the harsh sentencing of children, and representing Anita Hill as she testified at the confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas.
Entering academia allowed Charles Ogletree to confront the historical inequities and racial injustice that shaped the criminal legal system in which he zealously defended clients as a public defender. For decades, Professor Ogletree documented, contextualized, and explained how systemic violence against Black people during and after slavery evolved and was perpetuated through the growth of the death penalty in the early 20th century, through efforts to oppose and frustrate the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, through the ever present threat of police abuse and misconduct, and through the lasting presumption of guilt and dangerousness applied to people of color.
Professor Ogletree not only taught that the evils of enslavement and Jim Crow persisted, but he advocated for broader institutional and societal efforts to confront and repair the immense harm done. As one example, in 2003, he organized an effort to seek justice, including compensation, for the destruction and violence visited upon the Black community of Tulsa in 1921, when white mobs killed hundreds of Black people and destroyed “Black Wall Street,” eviscerating three dozen blocks of property, businesses, and wealth. Professor Ogletree wanted the country to know, and to continue to know, the names of those victims.
A beloved professor, lawyer, and colleague, Charles Ogletree’s legacy will continue through his former students, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, which he founded to organize and advance strategies to further civil rights, the Criminal Justice Institute, which he founded to train future public defenders and provide legal services in Boston, a professorship at Harvard named in his honor, and the inspiration his life’s work has given to EJI.