Charles Ogletree, Jr. was born in Merced, CA, on December 31, 1952, the eldest of five children to bless the union of migrant farm workers Willie Mae and Charles Ogletree, Sr. A bright child who exhibited an intellectual curiosity from an early age, Charles credits his parents and grandparents for whetting that insatiable thirst for knowledge.
He would matriculate at Stanford University where he earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Political Science before heading to Harvard Law School. Since graduating, he’s enjoyed a storybook career as a public intellectual, between teaching at Harvard and moderating a host of television shows, perhaps most notably, “The State of the Black Union” and “The Fred Friendly Seminars.”
Furthermore, Ogletree has been a frequent guest on everything from “Nightline” to “Frontline” to “Tavis Smiley” to “Larry King Live” to “The Today Show” to “Good Morning America.” As an attorney, he has represented a number of high-profile clients, most recently, fellow Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates of “Beergate” fame.
Currently, Ogletree is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School where he serves as the founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. He is also the author of seven books on race and the law, including his latest, The Presumption of Guilt, a sobering deconstruction of the Gates case, specifically, and of racial profiling, in general.
He has received numerous awards and honors, including being named one of the 100 Most Influential Black Americans by Ebony Magazine. In the wake of the Sergeant Crowley-Professor Gates incident, Ogletree continues to serve as special counsel to President Obama and as an advisor on police behavior to both Harvard University and the City of Cambridge.
Kam Williams: Professor Ogletree, I’m honored to have this opportunity.
Charles Ogletree: Thanks. How are you?
KW: Just fine. I have friend who was at Harvard the same time as you who I’ve lost touch with, JJ. Jackson. Do you know him?
CO: Do I know him? He won’t let me call him JJ anymore. He’s Judge William McKinley Jackson now. I see him every time I go to DC.
KW: It’d be nice to be able to touch base with JJ, I mean Judge Jackson again, if you could help make that happen.
CO: No problem, I’ll send him an email right away.
KW: What interested you in writing The Presumption of Guilt, a book about Professor Gates’ arrest?
CO: The main thing was that it clearly raised the issues of race and class, and offered the perfect opportunity to talk about our lagging effort to solve the problem of racial profiling, and also to notice that the issue is not restricted to those who find themselves frequently in the criminal justice system. So, I thought that part of the intrigue would be to show how wide an array of Black men find themselves presumed guilty when they haven’t committed anything close to a crime.
KW: I loved the second half of the book the best, where you have 100 prominent brothers talk about being profiled. I have personally been subjected to profile stops at least 25 times in my life. How do you feel about the official report on the Gates case which was recently released?
CO: I thought it was incredibly helpful in coming up with suggestions about going forward in terms of reaching out to and engaging the community, and in terms of community policing and examining whether charges like disorderly conduct can be administered in a neutral, professional and dispassionate way. On the other hand, when they said that both Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates had missed equal opportunities to deescalate the situation, I thought that it was inappropriate and unfair to suggest that the citizen has the same power as the police in a situation like that. The police have the authority, the power and the responsibility to control the situation, because they have the powers of arrest.
KW: What about how Professor Gates handled himself?
CO: Professor Gates was angry and did ask why he was being treated like this. But that was because he had produced two forms of I.D., and had done everything the officer had asked him to do in identifying himself, and yet there were still questions about whether he was who he claimed he was. So, that’s why I think the review has a serious flaw when it equates the actions of Professor Gates with those of Sergeant Crowley.
KW: In his book The Best Defense your colleague Alan Dershowitz says that one thing they never teach you in law school is that any cop’s testimony is sacrosanct and treated like Gospel in the courtroom. So, I assume that in the Gates case you were up against the legal system’s inclination to rubber stamp a police officer’s word.
CO: Absolutely! The interesting thing though is that Alan Dershowitz praised my book in a very strong blurb, and wants to do even more about the issue.
KW: One of my editors, Howard Manly of the Bay State Banner, is among the 100 Black men whose profiling incidents are quoted in your book. I told him I’d be interviewing you, and he said he’d like to know what you think about the evolution of Barack Obama and his handling of so many crises on a daily basis.
CO: Howard’s a good buddy. What’s interesting about Obama is that he’s had the opportunity to make more judgments not just with his brilliant mind, but with his big heart. That’s a good thing, because he has this cerebral quality. In addition, I have seen him grow enormously in both stating his case and learning more about politics, as well as in having this ability to multi-task. To think that with two wars and a financial crisis going on, he still was able to get a nearly $800 billion stimulus package, healthcare, regulatory reform and extensions of unemployment benefits passed, is a sign of what he has done and can do. Far too much of it is overshadowed by the vehement resistance to him, but the reality is that he’s doing a terrific job under trying circumstances.
KW: You taught both Barack and Michelle at Harvard. What were they like as students?
CO: They had very different personalities. Michelle came from a very strong family. Her parents made it possible for her and her brother to go to Princeton. When she came to Harvard, she was a remarkable student who was committed to public service. While here, she worked with Legal Aid, which meant she represented poor clients in civil matters. I was convinced, back in 1985, that she was going to be the first Black female to become a U.S. Senator. It was clear that she had that capacity.
Barack came after she had already graduated. He was the brightest person in the room, but he always reached out to make sure the voices of other students were heard. He had the balance of not only being great in the classroom, but a pretty impressive game on the basketball court, even though he was skinny with an unorthodox jump shot. And as smart as he was, he was humble, which enabled him to get elected the first Black President of the Harvard Law Review by his colleagues. Then, despite his academic success, he wanted to go back to Chicago to work as an organizer, which was extremely helpful to the community. So, he’s had one success after another that’s led him to the right place. It’s been remarkable!
KW: Yale grad Tommy Russell would like to know, how hard was it having such a high-profile case?
CO: It’s actually, more of a strain on the client than the lawyer. I’ve represented everybody from Anita Hill to Tupac Shakur, with so many others in between, that I don’t mind the publicity, provided it doesn’t violate my client’s fundamental rights. What was interesting in this case was that people focused on class more than race, and saw Prof. Gates as arrogant and aloof, even though in my view everything that he had to say was protected. The other point is that I hope the case sheds light on how it is within our capacity to solve a problem without regard to race, religion, gender or any other factor.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks, “What do you think will be the legacy of Skip Gates?”
CO: As much as he’s accomplished as a MacArthur Genius Fellow, having written over a half-dozen books, having received numerous honorary degrees and other awards, and having the highest title granted any Harvard University Professor, he still will be remembered, unfortunately, for better or worse, for the arrest and the Beer Summit. But if it creates a teachable moment, he has no hesitation to use it as a learning experience for himself and for others who might encounter a similar situation.
KW: Larry Greenberg, son of Third Circuit Federal Judge Morton Greenberg, asks, “Am I now legally required to speak respectfully to a police officer? In other words, can someone be arrested simply for having a bad attitude?”
CO: The reality is much more complicated than that. Speech is one of the most cherished fundamental rights in our society. We have to be careful where we draw the line, even if the words are controversial, obnoxious, offensive or troubling. That’s the reason I wrote the book, so that people understand that they have a First Amendment right to say reasonable things and to be heard, and to act in a defiant way, so long as they don’t put themselves or the police officer at harm.
KW: Both children’s book author Irene Smalls and editor/legist Patricia Turnier asked the same question: “Do you think we are in a post-racial era in the United States?”
CO: We’re not in a post-racial era because whether you’re the President of the United States, walking along the street, entering a hotel or working in certain places, race still matters. We may have one Black man in the White House, but we have one million Black men in prison. So, we still have that and many other fundamental problems, like unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and a lack of healthcare. So, my sense is that we all have to fight as diligently as we can to create a post-racial environment. But it’s a little premature to say that we’re there yet, even though it’s a significant shift in the political climate to have the country elect an African-American President.
KW: Rudy Lewis says, “Though class is a corrosive element in America's racial conflict, isn't the heart of the problem a lack of resolution of Blackness and Whiteness among both Blacks and whites?”
CO: I think it’s class. And I think class is the understated factor, and that’s why I wrote about it as a key factor. One would hope that if you’ve worked really hard and achieved some semblance of success that you’ve earned the right to be treated with a certain level of dignity and success. But as the book makes clear, you’re going to be judged by the color of your skin, not by the year, make and model of your car or by the suits that you wear. Consequently, it has not changed that people who are successful are still presumed to be a part of the criminal element. It’s as big a problem in 2010, in some respects, as it was decades earlier.
KW: Have you read The Rage of a Privileged Class by Ellis Cose?
CO: Absolutely! In fact, I’m one of the people he’s interviewing for Part 2. He’s writing a follow-up about the rage which flows in the wake of the disappointment at the denial of one’s true merit, skills and abilities. About the frustration at having to be twice as good in order to be considered equal to peers that happen to be white.
KW: What was your secret to breaking through barriers to reach the pinnacle of success?
CO: Three things: First, nurturing parents and grandparents who had nothing but an abiding faith that things would get better for their children and grandchildren, and who prayed for that day to happen. Second, a thirst for knowledge that came as a young kid, and being able to read books to think things through and to grow intellectually. And third, remarkable mentors, some known and unknown. And these three keys to my success are only important if I can pass them on not only to my children to everyone I encounter in life.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
CO: Yes, why is this all important for the future? I have three young granddaughters who haven’t encountered the issue of race yet. I really hope that we, as those with the powers to set the tone, don’t poison them by producing racial and even gender stereotypes that make them judge people by the color of their skin rather than as Dr. King said by the content of their color. That has to be our mission, and I’m hoping that we’ll achieve it.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
CO: I’m as happy as can be!
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
CO: Today. Whenever I have a chance to sit back with folks I might not have seen for awhile, whether 10 days or 30 years, that’s grounds for laughter.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
CO: I’m actually reading three books right now. The Bridge by David Remnick, The Audacity to Win by David Plough, and The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
CO: Not really, I think that just comes a feeling that whatever’s destined to happen will happen. I’m prepared to fall from success. I’m prepared to die if I have to. The closest thing I have to fear is that those who follow me might not enjoy a full life.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What was the last song you listened to?
CO: John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. It’s a great song that has a message that’s timeless and timely.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
CO: Hopefulness that if we all work together with a sense of “we” rather than “I” or “me,” we can all move forward.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
CO: Any type of fish, although my specialty is my mother’s sweet potato pie with her secret ingredients. It’s delicious and very popular.
KW: Care to share those secret ingredients in her recipe?
CO: If I told you, I’d have to kill you. [Chuckles]
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
CO: Libraries! Just going to libraries, and dreaming that I was somebody else, somewhere else. As the Southern Pacific Railroad rolled through the center of my hometown, I would imagine myself climbing aboard it to travel the world. Childhood dreams of the improbable are the very key to who I am today, so I will always cherish those fantasies.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
CO: We have to support our troops, but I’d wish for the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
KW: The Tavis Smiley questions. First, how introspective are you?
CO: Very, because you always have to examine who you are and what you are, before you can have the ability and credibility to advise someone else about who they are, who they should be and how to get there. So, there is much more introspection than expression of views.
KW: Second, what do you want your legacy to be?
CO: He was able to enter the door because of the help of others. And he not only left the door open but let a rope down to bring others in to follow his pursuits.
KW: Third, where are you in relation to that legacy at this point in your life?
CO: I’m there, but I’m never satisfied that my work is complete. I don’t think it will be complete until I’ve taken my last breath.
KW: Thanks for a great interview, brother.
CO: Thank you. Take care.