Many of the beneficiaries of reparations for those who were once slaves in this nation are unlikely to be familiar with Charles J. Ogletree Jr. However, whether or not they are aware of his identity, everyone who gains from potential reparations in the future or from any of the many legal and social theories regarding how Black people are treated in the United States would owe him a debt.
Ogletree, who spent the last few years of his life in Maryland, passed away from Alzheimer’s disease on Friday at the age of 70. But he spent the majority of his career at Harvard Law School, where he was a giant of a public intellectual and a professor.
He contributed to creating the legal framework that many believed would allow Black Americans to be compensated for the social and economic harm caused by the legacy of slavery.
He pushed for the same for the Tulsa Massacre survivors in 1921, a racially motivated riot in which a still-unknown number of Black neighborhood residents were killed in an armed confrontation with a white mob.
Ogletree, however, was more than just a legal thinker. He practiced law actively and was in demand. When Anita Hill, a legal expert herself, testified in front of senators during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court that he had harassed her sexually, he stood up for her.
He was one of the attorneys who, before Tupac Shakur‘s passing, defended him in a number of court proceedings. He is recognized as one of the legal educators and mentors who impacted Barack and Michelle Obama. Earlier this year, the courthouse in his native Merced County, California, was given his name.
The Harvard Law School received a sizable archive of his writings and other materials from his family last year. The law school collaborated with The History Makers, an organization devoted to preserving significant African-American historical documents, to digitize the collection and make it available to the general public.