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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Professor Charles Ogletree, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
OGLETREE: Pleasure to be here.
BOND: I want to begin with a couple of questions about Brown v. Board, and I know you were only three when the decision came down. Do you remember when you first became aware that there had been a court decision that ended segregation in schools? You're living in California, but when did you first have consciousness of this?
OGLETREE: Well, I was only two actually. I was born in 1952, and the decision was May 17th, 1954. It became apparent to me, as a young kid when I was entering elementary school, when I was five years old, and started noticing things like bussing. And the fact that instead of going to a school that was within walking distance, we would go somewhere else. I noticed my parents talking about it but not really seeming to be influenced by it. My mother was from Little Rock, Arkansas, my father from Birmingham, Alabama. So, therefore, existence and the pre-Brown era in America was that it didn't matter to them. Life had not changed. They had left the South, they had gone to California, and didn't see any hope for racial progress at the end of segregation.
It became even more apparent about Brown when I went to my elementary schools and all the children, even after Brown, in the '50s and early '60s. Almost every school I attended was all black and brown. There was occasionally a white student but someone who was poor.
Our community in Merced, California, was separated by railroads. I mean there really was a railroad track. And we were on the south side where the blacks and Hispanics -- Chicanos as we called them -- lived and a few Asian Americans and, invariably the whites, other than the poor whites, live on the north side of town. Everything about our community was divided by those railroad tracks -- the business opportunities, the high schools, the places that people went for recreation, the different sort of jobs you might pursue. There was a real demarcation at that railroad track. So, even though Brown wasn't discussed or debated in the house, its implications were clear even in California, even after 1954.
BOND: And you said that your parents had no expectation that it would make things better?
BOND: Their experience had taught them that change wouldn't occur?
OGLETREE: That's right. My father was born in the early 1900s in Birmingham, Alabama. And his existence was such that as a black man, he believed what the Dred Scott case said, that black people had no rights which whites were bound to respect. He dropped out of school in the fourth grade and left Alabama, actually never to return.
When he did share any thoughts about Alabama, they weren't pleasant thoughts, other than about his family. He talked about the police. He talked about the "eyeball rape," that a black man looking a white woman in the eye was a crime of eyeball rape. And there was a case, McQuirter v. State of Alabama, that actually had a doctrine along that line -- that a black man was accused of attempted assault of a white woman by looking at her, and not touching her, not in any way committing a sexual offense. And so the word spread -- you couldn't look at white women. And that was a phenomenon that affected my father his entire life. He really didn't look people in the eye, white people in the eye.
My mother grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. And her father grew up in Ozan, Arkansas, also born in the early 1900s, as was my grandmother. They had the same existence in the sense that slavery had ended in the fifty years before their birth, but they had relatives and friends who had been involved in slavery. They were in the middle of Jim Crow segregation. And the whole lifestyle was that you lived off the land. You didn't own anything, but that they knew you couldn't drink at water fountains because you were black. You couldn't eat at restaurants. You couldn't stay at a hotel. You couldn't get a job. You couldn't go to schools unless they were segregated. So, their entire life span was implicated by Brown. And even, even more from the fundamental ways, Julian, that I hadn't even thought about until recently -- they never voted. I mean, they were citizens. They paid their taxes. They worked hard, but they didn't have the ability as young adults, in their twenties or thirties or forties or fifties to cast a ballot.
Even though the one thing about our legal system was that anyone who was of age could vote. They knew about poll taxes and they knew about all the other barriers and burdens to participation. So, they knew that history. The good news is that, as much as they were pained by Brown and its aftermath and what preceded it, they never would place that burden on us. All they said is that "You must be educated. You must stay in school and trust us. If you get an education, life will lead to better opportunities for you than it has for us," without being bitter, or belaboring their own experiences.
BOND: But the very fact that they left Alabama and Arkansas and came to California suggets some kind of optimism and hope for a better life.
OGLETREE: That's exactly right. I mean the idea was, the word was, "Go west." That California didn't have slavery. California didn't have segregation. It was different from the South. And they had family members who'd gone out there and had found jobs. And they felt they struck it rich, which means they were lower working class.
OGLETREE: Right. That they had had a wage that they could live on for a week and provide for their family. But for my mother and father and grandparents, it was a new way of life, going to California. And they started in northern California, in Vallejo, California, and worked their way down to what we call the San Joaquin Valley. And they worked -- as did Cesar Chavez and the farm workers -- they worked as farmers. They lived in actually a camp called Red Top outside Chowchilla, near Merced. They live on the Baker ranch, and a couple of other ranchers owned by these white farmers who would hire black seasonal workers. And they would get a salary, but the salary would -- first of all, you'd take out for your rent, you'd take out for your food, you'd take out for the special provisions. And you might get a little change at the end of the month. But the idea was that you were really working to live.
BOND: Very much like the sharecroppers.
OGLETREE: That's exactly what they were. And this was supposed to be a Southern phenomenon. This is California in the 1940s and early '50s. It was the same. It didn't change. And that's why, for me, Brown is so significant because it was a demarcation and it helped an enormous number of our community members who saw the value of education. But it didn't change for those who had been disenfranchised before 1954, and for whom it was too late to see any realization of voting or educational opportunity or housing or other benefits that might have flowed from it.
BOND: And so, as you yourself go to school -- and you're going to school almost entirely with people who look like you -- there's no change that the Brown decision had, as far as you're concerned, in the section of California where you're living. Do you know now, from the perspective of looking back, if other parts of the West, other parts of California, were affected, did make change?
OGLETREE: Well, there was change because we started hearing about it and learning about, from other family in other parts of the state, about this whole bussing phenomenon. We saw some interesting things happening. We thought it was good news at the time that young black children in inner cities like Los Angeles and other parts of the pockets were going to be moved and bussed to other areas to go to school with white children.
It didn't work the other way. White children weren't coming in --
OGLETREE: -- to urban America to be educated. It was a one-way system. The same thing was happening in northern California, in places like Hunter's Point and other areas where African Americans lived. And so, there was this sense that something was happening, a voluntary plan to provide opportunities for African Americans in higher education. So, we sensed that there was some subtle change that was going about. But at the same time, we were young enough to watch the news. And we were seeing incredible things on the old black-and-white TV -- that people were fighting, resisting the very idea that blacks could go to school.
In the 1950s, we were hearing about Governor [Orval] Faubus in Arkansas not letting black children go to Central High. In the 1950s, we heard from Governor George Wallace, "Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" And we would learn about the Southern Manifesto that our Congress was saying that "we will fight against integration," using the term that people attribute to Malcolm X, "by any means necessary." That's what the southern segregationists were saying, that they were going to fight this effort, and it was amazing to us that we thought a law had been decided, and people had to follow the law. But what we saw on the news and heard on the radio and read was that people were willing to give their lives to resist integration. And on the other hand, African Americans were dying with their white supporters when they were trying to promote integration in places throughout the South.
BOND: Now, from your parents' experience -- your parents lived in this section of the country, and your grandparents lived in this section of the country. Did they impart to you a picture of this society? What it was like as different from California where you lived?
OGLETREE: What they told me, and what was a sad reality, even if they're talking about the 1950s, is that there were two Americas -- one black, one white. They were separate and unequal. That was it, and that everything flowed from that, whether it is a relationship between the community and police, whether it's a relationship between employment opportunities and a lack thereof, whether it was the opportunities for a meaningful education, whether it was health care. It was -- everything was, in a sense, influenced by your race. And it was condition at birth that determined not your aptitude but your altitude, where you could possibly go. And they were, in a sense, messengers telling me what the paths looked like. At the same time they were aspirational in telling me that they hoped that my generation the children born after Brown --
BOND: So, this condition they're describing is not fixed.
OGLETREE: That's exactly right.
BOND: It's permeable. It can be changed.
OGLETREE: They were saying, "There is a decision of saying that we can integrate now. It means nothing to us. It's too late for us. We can't go back to school when we're forty and dropped out at fourth grade. We can't get a job when we're forty, when we don't have the marketable skills. We can't move into a neighborhood when we're forty. And we don't have the income. And we can't improve the debilitating health tragedies that we have in the family. But you can." And so, they started talking about reading, paying attention in school, and to hopefully be an optimist. They weren't negative in the way that they could have been. And, and in some sense I appreciate what they told me, but I'm disappointed that the worst aspects of history, they didn't share. They didn't share all the nightmares, all the horror stories, all about the KKK.
BOND: Why are you disappointed?
OGLETREE: Because I think we needed to understand that history because I -- my sense is that they should have gone to school. I don't understand why do you drop out of school if it's free? Why didn't you try to get a college education if it's available to you, even at a black college? Why didn't you move into another neighborhood if there are better opportunities? And they didn't want to go back to the painful experience, saying, "We could not have done that. It would have cost us our lives." And maybe they even felt that they were compromised by silently acquiescing in segregation, rather than being part of a movement to change it. And I'd like to know the stories, not because I want to be critical of them --
OGLETREE: -- because I think the painful history is an oral history that we need to appreciate so that I know that my grandparents and parents sacrificed so that I could be here. It makes clearer my responsibility to make considerably even more sacrifices for the next generation of children and grandchildren who will follow.
BOND: Now, when did you begin to notice in your own life -- not from the television or from news accounts -- that this black/white divide your parents and grandparents had described, was permeable, was moveable, that you could break out of it, if you tried? When did that become apparent to you?
OGLETREE: It took a while. It was interesting as a child. I have to remember being black and being poor wasn't a bad thing because we didn't know that we were black and poor. There was no disability. I remember on Saturday mornings, Rev. Robinson, whose church was right there in the community, would come having gone through the bakeries in town, picked up stale donuts and old bread. And he would almost like lead us this, this group of children that we would -- he was the Pied Piper. We would follow him to his church. He'd give us free, stale donuts. We didn't know that they were stale.
OGLETREE: They were free and they were good. And he would talk about God is good and we would go to church with him Sunday. I remember Money Back Lee, a black entrepreneur on the corner, who had a shop, it was a cleaners. But he sold used jewelry, other artifacts, things that he claimed were originals, and they clearly were things that the whites on the north side of town had tossed out of their house. He picked them up on Saturday and sold them to our families.
He had a credit, an informal credit system. There was a Pine Cone Inn, where folks would have dinner, play cards, dance. And so, the black community was functioning and it seemed fine. It didn't occur to me that there was something different until I went to elementary school and the first time I was called a "nigger." That made a difference to me that, "Uh, oh. I am something," and that was used in a pejorative and negative way.
OGLETREE: But at the same time I knew that it was a chance of opportunity because I started seeing that in the classes, whether it was science class or math class, that I was the only African American, but I was there competing with the top students in my environment. I started seeing small progress -- Sam Pipes having a job as a postal worker, which was an important change in Merced. I saw Burt Alexander having a little newspaper shop on the north side of town where blacks had normally visit.
I saw Julia Bill, the NAACP representative, sitting with whites, talk about issues of civil rights and racial justice because I could see the doors starting to open, and I saw my first black teachers, in elementary school, who obviously had gone to college, got an education. And they were saying "We made it, you too can make it." So, I started seeing those small signs that there was an opportunity for racial progress.
BOND: And these examples, the entrepreneur, the postal worker, the NAACP -- all these lifted aspirations for you?
OGLETREE: Absolutely. They were lifted in the sense of "Here are role models. Here are people who are enormously successful," given what I knew before -- that they had an education. They had real talents. They had real jobs. They had confidence, and respect, and character. That was extremely important.
OGLETREE: At the same time, I started having teachers in the fourth grade, and then in junior high and high school, who started steering me toward reading. And I fell in love with reading. It was my way out. That is, that I couldn't be at these places, but I would read these books and they would place me in worlds that I had never imagined before. Whether it's Gulliver's Travels, whether it's Robinson Crusoe -- I just started reading and getting a sense about the world.
And as I recall, vividly, that I would go to the public library, check out all these books. The librarian and I had a mutually respectful relationship. She'd give me all these books. And she would just be thrilled with the fact that I would come back and tell her what I had learned. She would give me these little gold stars of how many books I would read a week. And I would go home, and would hear the train, going through Merced, the Southern Pacific going north to south or south to north at night. And I imagined being on that train. And I dreamed dreams that seemed unimaginable. That I could go places that seemed unimaginable before.
I could be somebody that I wasn't. I was no longer black or poor. I was an explorer. I was a creator. I was an astronomist. I mean, I was all those things that I had read about. And finally it sort of relieved and removed the chains, the shackles that I thought I had had on my mind. It made me imagine then, as a young person who could read and who had confidence, I could do anything. And that confidence was fixed in me. And then it reached the heights that I was trying to then, perhaps mistakenly, tell my parents, "Wait a minute. You should read more. You should appreciate this. You should understand."
BOND: And what their reaction?
OGLETREE: A little bit of embarrassment and discomfort. My mother went all the way to tenth grade before she dropped out. But my father had learned to read by grabbing newspapers, but he had never had any formal education. And so, I couldn't give him the book and ask him to read it. It was embarrassing to him.
OGLETREE: And I didn't quite realize it, but I was so excited. How do you share? It should have been the other way --
OGLETREE: -- parent reading to child. And I'm not criticizing them. I'm criticizing the system that deprived them of the education that they could have had, that would have helped the next generation of children to move forward, and the system denied that opportunity to them.
BOND: But still you mentioned a moment ago that they encouraged you to read --
BOND: And to study and to learn. They knew this was valuable. This would be good for you.
OGLETREE: I had in high school a wonderful teacher by the name of John Heflin. And John had been my basketball coach when I was a freshman in high school. But he also was the one who first started pushing me toward reading black books, and reading about people like Richard Wright and understanding the black experience in ways that I never imagined before. And he wasn't trying to tell me how to think. He was trying to tell me to read this and draw my own conclusions about it. And I started seeing a sense of how these African American writers who had written in the '50s and the '60s were now relevant to me as I became a high school student.
And it sort of radicalized my whole thinking about race and oppression. And I give him credit. He went onto Stanford when I was there. He now teaches at Kent State. And he doesn't even realize how much he did for me by giving me those books that made me angry. And that may have been his whole purpose because in every book that he gave me, there was always a black villain, no matter what the story was, and that's Bigger Thomas or any of the rest of them, there was Manchild in the Promised Land. There was always an unhappy story.
And he knew I'd come back and say, "Professor Heflin, you know this is, this is crazy! Why did this happen?" And he would just smile and say, "Why do you think it happened?"
BOND: And that made you figure it out for yourself.
OGLETREE: It made me think critically about not just being angry at the author, That's what I -- "Why would you write a book like this about black people?"
OGLETREE: And then it made me have a much more sophisticated thinking about "Now I understand their world." No matter what they did, they're still in a world where race matters. And that certainly helped me think about why race matters as I went on to high school and beyond and realized I couldn't escape from the inevitable.
BOND: Now, you said that your family was poor but you didn't know you were poor. Was there ever a time when you found out you were poor?
OGLETREE: There were times, there were a number of times. And here's why I thought we were poor. We -- my grandfather, the house we lived in, my parents and my siblings lived with my grandparents because we didn't have a separate house. This was actually a house that he built out of these two huge boxes, wooden boxes from a freight train, and we had an outhouse. I didn't know that plumbing was supposed to be on the inside of the house. It was fine. If you had to use the bathroom, you'd go outside. There was a wash tub. It was the way we lived.
And also they were resourceful. And so, we didn't know we were poor. We thought two things -- my family, my grandfather had some hogs and my grandmother had a vegetable garden, or fruit garden, in California. And there was no animal that we worshiped more than the hog. One, because it would take care of all of the garbage. There wasn't a whole lot of garbage left from the meal, you know, but you know, whatever junk you had, they would eat anything, number one. And number two, my grandfather would raise these hogs. My grandmother would cook them. And I didn't realize then that one animal could provide bacon and ham and pork chops and pig snouts, and pig's feet, and scrapple, and hog head cheese, and down and down, down the list that this -- we kept thinking about, "Oh there's something else you can do with that." Pork rinds --
BOND: Everything but the squeal.
OGLETREE: Every -- right! And that's exactly what happened. And it amazed me that one animal provided so much. Now, was it healthy? Of course not. But we were saying we were rich because we had that much. My grandfather would go hunting and kill rabbits. And so, he was always resourceful.
BOND: And he fished too?
OGLETREE: And absolutely. And that's where I learned fishing, watching my -- the patience. That's where I learned about patience because they gave me a pole, a cane pole, and they gave us a little bit of this wheat dough. That was the bait. And I would throw it in and no bite, and I'd pull it up. And I'd throw it in and no bite and I'll pull up. And he said, "Junior, be patient. The fish will come." I said, "But they're not biting." He said "Just be patient." Of course, he would hook the carp and pull it up. I'd go right back down where he was. I would sit there and nothing happened. And then he said, "Junior, be patient." I said, "I'm patient." And he'd pull up another one. And so, it taught it me a whole lot of lessons about that, and about patience, about a sense of confidence, and a sense of expectations. And I didn't -- he was teaching me fishing, but he was teaching me values far beyond fishing that I begin to appreciate. And also to have some time, quiet time to reflect and think. I didn't know what was going on in his mind. I would occasionally hear them talk about the old country. Unlike other families who were talking about the old country, talking about Italy or Spain or Belgium or France, they were talking about the South.
OGLETREE: And they were talking about it admiringly, in the sense remembering the days where they had very little and survived on it, but also talking about, "My God we're in a different place now." And so, I enjoyed listening to those conversations. I couldn't -- it was an adult conversation. But I eavesdropped because I wanted to get a sense of what their history was, and they were finally feeling California -- "We're beyond it. We're not where we were before." It was a very resourceful and useful time for me and my family.
BOND: And then you go on to high school and you become a kind of a leader in high school?
OGLETREE: Almost by default, because I was very quiet kid and shy kid. I did very well, academically, but I just wanted to do my work. The reading is what really opened the door, that I was convinced that I could do and should do anything, any challenge that was before me. I went to high school and got involved in what we called Operation Get Together. It was too early to have a black student union. That was too radical.
OGLETREE: So, our black student group was called Operation Get Together. And we started talking about the issue of, you know, integration, the issue of equality, injustice, and reading a little bit of black history before there was a popular black history month or week that we could celebrate it.
At the same time, as I became more of a leader and went through high school, in my junior year I was going to run for vice president. The dean of students, John Lenker and the white student body president, Jack Kanealy, came to me and said, "Look Charles, you've done all these things. You've been an athlete, an honor student, you're a leader in your community. Why are you running for vice president?" I said, "Well because that's -- I'd like to do that." He said, "You should run for president." I said, "President? That, that runs the whole student body." He says, "We think you deserve to be president and you should run," and they persuaded me.
And so, I ran a campaign. It was the first rainbow coalition in the history of Merced High School. And I didn't realize it that there was a coalition because I played football with whites and blacks and Chicanos and Asian Americans, Samoans. And that we came together as a group, whether you were a lineman, or quarterback, or defensive back, that we had very different qualities. And we brought that diversity together to make a whole unit. And student government and that -- the Operation Get Together, involved in plays and other things that -- my science team was white, my art class was diverse. I knew people. I'd sneak into home economics to steal some cookies when the women were baking. And so, I had this whole variety of people that supported me that I didn't even realize.
I ran on a unity campaign in 1970 and was elected the first African American student body president at Merced High School. And then I told Gil Grover, who was a student advisor that, "It's not enough to just be the high school president. I want to go and talk to other schools." And he arranged almost every week that we take the afternoons. We'd go to Turlock and Modesto and Fresno, and talk to other black students in schools about student governments, about voting, about issues of responsible leadership for young people.
They arranged for me to go to Washington, D.C., to attend the Presidential Classroom for Young Americans, which were student leaders in high school -- my first trip out of California. And I learned the importance of leadership then and it was very significant. I went to Washington as student body president. I met President Nixon, who was in office in the early '70s, and I met somebody who had a profound impact on my sense about America and democracy.
He was a reporter. We didn't know why he talked to us, and -- they had a series of people talk to us, and he had the most impact on me. His name was Jack Anderson. And Jack was obviously very popular then, but we didn't know -- "Why are we talking to this journalist?" And he talked about journalism. He talked about the truth. He talked abut the First Amendment and why we needed to have press about that. Then he talked about democracy. And he said something that just stuck with me, and he wasn't saying that he was -- he hadn't attributed to his own thing, but he said "There's a saying you should appreciate." He said, "Democracy is the worst form of government imaginable -- except for the all the others."
And then when he said that and we started thinking about freedoms, about the freedom from unlawful searches and seizures, the freedom of expression, the freedom of religion, the freedom of association, it dawned on me that there was something remarkable and exceptional about America. And the problem was not that we didn't have rights. We just didn't exercise them. And I think he opened up my eyes in ways that no one else had in a fundamental way, to say, "There's nothing that I'm going to avoid doing now, because now I know that I have the freedom to do it. And I also have the responsibility to not just be someone who is successful, but the responsibility to always go back, lower the ladder to make sure others, who have not crossed over into the land of opportunity are able to do so."
BOND: What about President Nixon?
OGLETREE: It was -- it's interesting. I was not political. You know, I was very young then. But the troubling aspect that you seem to be talking about in America, that didn't come to grips with me. There was a young brother who was from Washington, D.C., named John Fowler (ph.), who was also in the class. And the President was talking about how great America was, and the wonderful opportunities, and that everyone can be a leader. And I looked around the room. I said, "Well this is interesting. This is a large class of America's future leaders -- [there's] very few blacks, and very few women." And I noticed that.
And John Fowler, who had gone to school in D.C., said, "Well, that man's up at the White House, but I want to show you the other side of the postcard, because he says I'm going to a segregated school. I know how the police are treating black people here in Washington, D.C. and you should see what our church has to say." And I stayed over a couple other days to see a side of Washington, D.C., that the President hadn't talked about. And so, his aspirational view that "It's the greatest time in America, we should celebrate the republic and anyone can take advantage of opportunity," was in a sense, negated by the reality of what I saw in Washington, D.C., in 1972. It was a very different city that I saw when I went to southeast Washington than what he described when we were at the White House in northwest Washington.
BOND: I really find it interesting that Jack Anderson had this effect. I mean, I don't doubt it at all, but that, it's a wonder you didn't become a journalist.
OGLETREE: Well, you know it was very powerful, and it did have an impact on me when I went to Stanford, to the university, because that, that's the first thing I did. I became editor of the Real News newspaper, the black student newspaper, because I thought "Here is a way to get your message out." And so, it was a very effective lesson, and it was a very effective role model. But as I think about it, we were there for over a week. I didn't see a single black professional. I didn't see a black member of Congress. I didn't see a black lawyer or a black doctor or any black professionals. And so, to the extent that they were trying to have an impact on us, you would think that somebody would have appeared --
OGLETREE: -- at that forum, or one of those forums where we were there for more than a week. And we were the future leaders, future issues, future leaders in government, that at least they would have cosmetically presented, "Here are some examples." But they probably didn't have any in 1972. Who could they call? The Black Caucus didn't exist, even though --
OGLETREE: -- there were a few representatives. There's very little representation at the national government. There was, there was no obvious Cabinet member with Nixon who could have come out and said something helpful. And so, it's actually interesting that may have been the difference between what America imagined was its persona and the reality of what it looked like in 1972 -- radically different.
BOND: Now --
OGLETREE: 1970, I'm sorry.
BOND: How does Stanford enter the picture?
OGLETREE: Purely by accident, purely by accident. I graduated from high school in 1971. The trip to Washington was 1970. In my junior year, Miss Jackson was my counselor. She had gone to Stanford. And she called me and said, "Charles, you should start thinking about college. You're doing very well. I'd like you to consider applying to some colleges and now is the time." And I said, "Well, I'm going to apply to Merced Community College, and I'm going to apply to -- I think, I might apply to Occidental, I read a brochure. It looks like a beautiful campus."
And she said, "No, no. You could do better than that. You should apply to, at least Stanford, which is a great college." And I said, "Stanford? You know, I don't want to go all the way back to Connecticut." It was very cold back there. I wanted to stay home. And she looked at me, and then she started laughing. She said "Stanford's not in Connecticut, you fool. It's in California." I was embarrassed. I didn't know that Stanford existed. I'd heard of Harvard.
OGLETREE: I'd heard of Howard. But Stanford University was nowhere on my radar screen. There was no one that I knew that had gone there or that would go there. And there clearly had not been any African Americans in my community who had gone to a college like that. So, she embarrassed me into actually going to visit Stanford, and I did.
And I met there -- the first person I met -- was Rick Turner, who was in the African American admissions office. He startled me because he wasn't what I expected to see when I walked into the white institution, Stanford University. Here was a black man with a beard, didn't have a tie, had a silk shirt on with a leather coat, and he had a black leather bag, a purse that he carried with him. He said, "I'm Milton Turner. Welcome to Stanford."
I'm saying, "Now who is this? What is he doing here?" And he actually, when I realize that he was the -- not the gatekeeper, but the facilitator. He was looking for black talent far and wide. He was going to places like Compton High School. He was going to Merced. He was going to Detroit and Chicago. He was going to Houston. He was going to Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, he was going to Atlanta, and finding places where African Americans that would not be discovered by Stanford, would apply. And it was just transformative for me to meet him, talk to him, and he to be such an important role model.
And I had my moments at Stanford because I had this voice that people thought I was from the South. I was dressed like a black hillbilly. I say that with -- with pride and distinction. But, and I kept telling the people there who were from LA and New York, and Chicago and Houston, that I was from Merced. And they said, "Merced? Is that in the South?"
OGLETREE: They'd never heard of it, even Californians had never heard of it. And so, I had to overcome this defensiveness of being this guy, a black guy, from no place that black people ever come from, at Stanford, with people who'd come from prominent schools, prominent cities in the country, and who already had a sense about what they would take to go to college. But it was a wonderful introduction. And Rick Turner was the one who created that opportunity.
BOND: So, Stanford is a new experience for you. It's different than anything you've experienced before and you feel differently about who you are and -- how did you begin to feel at home there?
OGLETREE: Well, it's a different world. First, for the first time, I had my own room, right? I had grown up with three brothers, bunk beds or the floor. I had access to a bathroom that wasn't shared by six people. I had a shower as opposed to a bathtub. I had privacy. I had three meals a day, and the most dangerous thing, I had total independence, right? That could be, a benefit or a burden. It turned out to be a benefit, but it could have been just the opposite. I met smart black people from all over the country, met people who were musicians, who were scientists, who were other artists, who were brilliant in economics. I had never seen so many black people with so much talent in one place. And so I was overwhelmed, and -- "What the world am I doing here?" At the other hand, there were two --
BOND: But you were smart.
OGLETREE: But I didn't know it. It's sort of like I -- to me that was not a factor. I did what needed to be done, but I had not seen, in those classes in the high school, people like me. I was the exception, and here at Stanford I was part of a broader class. So, it was empowering. It was intimidating. It was empowering to see, "Wow, this is what the world is about." And I had been sheltered from that world from my upbringing. So, it was nice to see that at Stanford.
At the same time, there were two experiences at Stanford that were defining moments in terms of what Brown meant. This is 1971, seventeen years after Brown, so, you would think that we made a lot of progress. When we met somebody at Stanford that I found to be very troubling, it was a guy by the name of William Shockley. And most people know him as a brilliant physicist, the inventor, or one of the co-inventors, of the transistor that received the Nobel Prize. But there was a dastardly and dangerous side of Shockley as well. He was a Stanford professor who advocated theories about eugenics, that whites were genetically superior to blacks.
And it even argued that there should be federal support to sterilize black women so that they would not have children because that would endanger the future population of the race. And so, Shockley was one of these people who I had to confront as a Stanford student. Here I was, arrived at Stanford, the mecca of higher education, and having to have a faculty member tell me that we didn't belong there because we were black. I thought those days were over with Brown, but we revisit them again in 1971 and '72. We had him debate two African American professors, Cedric Clark and Philip McGee. And they made him look ridiculous. But that's what he wanted. He wanted the publicity We had a packed room of two thousand people, black and white. And after he was beat up so bad, he had another theory -- "Okay. You're right. I may not be right about the genetics of you, about blacks, but I want some federal support for a new project."
What was his new project? He wanted to get federal money to study the black students at Stanford because he believed that we probably had more white genetics in us than the normal black. That explained why we were at Stanford. So, that was the Shockley experience.
BOND: So, he had it right either way?
OGLETREE: Exactly, exactly. And so, that's the Stanford experience. I also -- my political education came about because Angela Davis was arrested. She was held at the women's detention center in Palo Alto right across the street from Stanford. And I met her. We would raise money, raise funds, and she became a huge influence in my decision to go to law school, because here was a black woman who was going to trial for serious murder charges and conspiracy charges, and she had the original dream team. She had Howard Moore, a black lawyer --
BOND: That's my brother-in-law.
OGLETREE: Yes? And she had Harold [Leo] Branton, from L.A., whose brother Wiley Branton who argued the Cooper v. Aaron case in desegregated Arkansas. She had [Doris] Brin Walker, communist lawyer and one of the first black woman, white woman lawyers in California. And the last member of the team was Margaret Burnham who was a young woman who had gone to school and grew up with Angela in Alabama, who worked for the NAACP in New York. And, you know the, your organization's history --
OGLETREE: She wanted to go represent Angela Davis, they said it was not a relevant case --
OGLETREE: She quit her first job.
BOND: It was her first case, yeah.
OGLETREE: She quit her first job. Can you imagine the courage of a young lawyer just admitted to practice, leaving her job to go save a friend's life?
BOND: Well, you know they wouldn't represent me when I got put out of the legislature. But that's another story.
OGLETREE: That, that's the old NAACP. Things have changed.
OGLETREE: Right. And so, that was an experience too. Going there and seeing the Angela Davis trial. We were all prepared in June 1972 when the jury was coming back, we assumed that she was going to get convicted because it was -- Ronald Reagan was our governor, this conservative element. Nixon was in the White House. And what chance did she have? Well, the jury came back and found her not guilty of all charges. We had to radically change our plans. We had something else planned. I can't tell you what it was, but the good news, we had to turn what we thought was going to be a devastating defeat into a celebration.
OGLETREE: The final thing was that as we were graduating, Stanford slapped us in the face a last time, because of all the people it could bring to celebrate the diversity -- and I graduated with honors as did a number of my classmates, Phi Beta Kappa, two degrees in four years -- our commencement speaker was Daniel Moynihan.
We said, "Wait a minute. Isn't this the guy who's talked about the black families, was very critical?" My mentor, Sinclair Drake, who was a black -- a pan-Africanist who wrote the book Black Metropolis and who educated me a lot about Brown and about racial progress, told us and educated us about Moynihan. And what we did in the first time in Stanford's history, in 1975, we told our parents to come a day early because we had to tell them something. We had to tell them that we were dismayed that Stanford had Daniel Moynihan, who was the epitome of the opposite of what we wanted to reflect as we went out into the world, as our commencement speaker, and we were not going to hear him. And what we did, we said, "We want to have a graduation so we could show you our pride for you -- single parents, people who did not have formal education, none who had gone to, you know, a predominantly white institution, some had gone to HBCUs.
And so, Saturday night we had our own graduation ceremony, and we invited Dr. Sinclair Drake, who gave a phenomenal address to our parents. And we read a statement about what our plans wanted to be tomorrow. And our parents said, "Okay, we understand." It was our act of political courage. On Sunday of commencement, as Daniel Moynihan got up to speak, the black students got up to walk out. And we walked out peacefully. And then the Chicano students got up. And then white students got up. And then our parents got up, and our relatives got up. And these hundreds of people walked out of commencement peaceably and quietly.
And it was amazing to not just see this stream of black people, but to also see Richard Kelley, a white friend of my class, in our class, seven-foot-one on the Stanford basketball team. I said, "Richard Kelley what are you doing?" He said "I'm with the brothers," right? And he marched out. But another Atlantan marched out and it shocked me. Her name was Ruby Edwards. She was very active with Dr. King. Her daughter, Belinda Edwards, was in our class. And she was in the NAACP in Atlanta. And, she said, "Help me, boy." I said "What?" She said "Hold my arm. I'm walking out with you."
I said, "Ma'am, you don't have to go. You know, your granddaughter is graduating." She says, "No, I've been doing this since before you were born. And if you kids are doing this, I'm with you." And she grabbed my arm and we marched out, and it was, it was a moment to see someone like that join it and believe in it, because she had been on the streets. She'd been in the struggle. And she said, "I'm going to lift you up." I'd have to say that that made the graduation special and memorable.
And what's amazing, Julian, is that in the year 2004, this year, the black students will have a black graduation. They've had it every single year since 1975. They have no idea that it is a response to protest. Every year hundreds of black students, undergraduates and graduates, have a Saturday night ceremony, hundreds of family members. And they come up, and each graduate gets a Kente cloth. It's placed around them by a parent, or a child if they have children, or a relative. And it is the most emotional event at Stanford. And now it's a celebration, but it started out a struggle. And that to me is a testament to the fact that Brown meant something and that we now value the fact that we are at Stanford, but we are also part of a larger black nation that has to celebrate our history, remember our past, and to grow from it. And so, it's that 1975 march, at Stanford, that led me to Harvard Law School. But it's the fact that students continue to do it, decades later, means that there's still a reflection on -- it's not just graduating from Stanford.
BOND: Before we go on to law school, let me mention something. Something you said just triggered it. I just heard Jack Greenberg, who succeeded Thurgood Marshall at the [Legal Defense and Educational] Fund say that, looking back at Brown, he thought it probably hadn't done what it might have done for the lower schools. That just didn't turn out to be as successful. But it was a tremendous benefit to colleges --
BOND: -- and universities. And, and so, you're drawing a parallel between Brown's success and your presence at Stanford. So, do you find that to be true?
OGLETREE: Absolutely. I'm a Brown baby. I'm the first generation. I mean we were born in the '50s. And by the time that we were prepared to go to college in the early '70s, Brown had had an impact but the Stanfords, the Harvards, the Princetons, the Yales -- those doors weren't open. The African American presence, they were few and far between. And so, the case had resounding significance decades later by the doors being open. The same thing at Harvard Law School. Harvard Law School did not have the critical mass of students in the '50s. In fact, in '65, the class of '65, there was only one African American in the entire class. There was Conrad Harper, who was also an NAACP lawyer.
And so, it tells you that the progress was slow, but these institutions opened their doors up. While we've seen the resegregation of public education, as we'll talk about, the remarkable thing is that these institutions, who have written briefs and who have defended affirmative action, opened their doors to qualified, but significant numbers of people of color in the 1960s, and more importantly in the '70s and '80s. And Brown, in my view, as well as the assassination of Dr. King, which we can talk about, were the two pivotal points that changed the terrain of higher education and made it possible for my generation.
BOND: But let me take it back a little bit. Before you get to Harvard Law School, you have to decide "I want to be a lawyer."
OGLETREE: Right, right.
BOND: How did that happen?
OGLETREE: Angela Davis. When I saw Angela Davis -- I met her when she was in prison, talked to her about her trial, told her what we were doing. And I saw lawyers working for justice. I said, "Wow, this really makes a difference!" I thought I was going to stay at Stanford, get a Ph.D. in international relations, political science, write books and try to change public policy and public opinion. But seeing her trial made me think about, "Gosh, lawyers can make a phenomenal difference."
And I saw four lawyers do that. I saw them take the government's evidence and turn it on its head. I saw them have a client like Angela Davis actually participate in the trial. She was not a potted plant. She actually played a role giving part of the opening statement, examining witnesses. I saw the true dream team, a diverse team of women and men, black and white, defending someone against charges that could have resulted in a punishment as serious as the death penalty. I saw it at a time, when I said, that Reagan was the governor, Nixon was the president, and there was this war on crime, and certainly war on someone who would be labeled as a communist, as Angela Davis was. She was in the worst possible circumstance, and I saw lawyers save the day. And I said if I ever had the opportunity and privilege to do that, that's what I'd like to do. I'd like to become a lawyer and try to serve the community and try to save the day.
And that trial was the transformative point during my second year at Stanford University.
BOND: But you also had a friend ensnared in the criminal justice system.
OGLETREE: That's exactly right. That's exactly right. And that's the dark side of the system. one of my dearest high school friends, a brother by the name of Eugene Allen, we played sports together, ran track, hung out. And this brother didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't curse, just a wonderful young man with enormous talent. And his junior year -- sophomore year in high school, he was accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail at the coach, at the coach's house, our football coach's house who treated him badly. There's no defense of that. There's no justification toward.
But Eugene got on a trajectory that sent him from Merced as a juvenile to a youth camp in California where there was a race dispute and a young black kid was -- a white kid, was murdered. Gene was charged with that even though he wasn't responsible. He didn't tell what happened. He refused to tell what happened, because he was only seventeen, and, he ended up going to San Quentin. He was charged with a second homicide in San Quentin. And he was tried and convicted, sentenced to the death penalty. It was reversed, tried again, and was acquitted of all charges.
I've been working on Gene's case since I was a student at Stanford in 1971, trying to get him paroled. And to me it's a constant sense about how the system can give you certain benefits. The Angela Davises of the world, with all the support, can have a legal team that make a difference. But there are so many of our community members who are caught up in the system and who don't have a way out. And so, it's a constant reminder to me, that as long as I live, Eugene Allen is a reminder.
I'm writing a second book about the criminal justice system, of the flaws of the system. Here's a person who's been acquitted and should be released but, because the people who were killed in San Quentin were guards, they keep denying his parole, even though he should have been parole-eligible in the '80s, and this is the year 2004. He's been in prison for all of his adult life since he was a teenager. I talk to him regularly. I've been supporting efforts to -- I've appeared at his parole hearings. He is doing some wonderful projects. He's self-educated, brilliant young man, and I think that he's an example of the failure of the criminal justice system and the hypocrisy of the California Department of Corrections.
BOND: So you decided that law is going to be your profession. And there are many, many law schools in America. Why Harvard?
OGLETREE: My wife, Pam. I met Pam when we arrived at Stanford in 1971. She was from, she's from Compton. She grew up in Baltimore, but she's from Compton, went to high school there. She is one of a class of three black students from Compton High admitted to Stanford. And her and her three classmates were in the top five graduates of Compton that year. And she was my soul mate from the moment we arrived in 1971, and we've been married now for twenty-nine years, with two wonderful children. Our son, Chuck, who is at Tallahassee, and our daughter, Rashida, is at NYU Law School.
And she is the one who encouraged me to apply to law school. And I applied to Harvard and other places. And I got admitted to Harvard, and I didn't want to go. I had the reluctance. I said, "I can't do what I want to do there." And she challenged me. She's very slick. She says, "Oh, you don't think you can do the work? Is it too difficult?" And she just really sort of turned the tables on me. I said, "What do you mean?"
"Well, I know Harvard's a -- you know, not just anyone can go to Harvard. It's very selective, and may be more than you can handle." And she was picking a fight, and she picked one, and she ultimately won because I decided to go. And I'm glad that I did. And I left Cambridge, we left in the summer -- we left California in the summer of 1975 and headed out from California, heading to Boston, and then to Cambridge to attend Harvard Law School.
BOND: And that had to be a different experience, not only because of law school as opposed to college, but it's East Coast as opposed to West Coast, a whole different culture.
OGLETREE: It was a radically different culture. Stanford is a farm. The weather is wonderful. The campus was glorious. And there's just a whole atmosphere of acceptance and encouraging and nurturing. Harvard is cold, damp, dark, distant -- very structured, very regimented, very impersonal. But maybe that's what I needed. It was a rude awakening that "Here is a different world." And it was a rude awakening in another way. We drove out there and we had heard about the problems in Boston and we wanted to make sure that we didn't encounter them. Well, we made our first mistake on Interstate 93, which you take from Connecticut to get into Boston. We got lost. We got off the highway and I called the landlord and said, "We're here but we're not quite there." He said, "Where are you?" I said, "Well, we're at this street, I can't see it in the dark, but I see something saying, Paddy's Liquor, O'Riley Store, et cetera." And he said, "Get back in the car." I said, "Why?" He said, "Just get back in the car, and you find the police, or drive and look for 93. You're going north."
We got back in the car. And about half an hour later we made it into Cambridge and called him and he gave us directions right to our apartment. And I said, "Why were you so upset?" He said, "Well, you were in South Boston." I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, that's the place where all the racial hatred and violence has occurred in recent years." I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, this is the place where we've had resistance to bussing."
This is twenty-one years after Brown, but whites in South Boston are doing everything possible to keep blacks from going to school. And that to me was a realization that as much as I thought I'd passed that burden with Shockley and Moynihan at Stanford, here I was arriving on the first day in Boston and having the experience of race mattering again, and Brown manifesting itself in another way in 1975, twenty-one years after the case had been decided. It was a rude awakening to be at Harvard Law School and trying to study to be a lawyer, but recognizing right within the sound of my voice were black children who were being harassed, who were being challenged, who were being beaten, who had busses vandalized. Where Ted Landsmark a black lawyer in a three-piece suit, coming from city hall was struck with an American flagpole by whites, just because he was black. Where Crispus Attucks gave his life, where the abolitionist movement was in its heyday -- here were people resisting blacks in 1975 from going to elementary schools and middle schools because of their race. I could not imagine that twenty-one years after Brown that the battle ground had moved from the South --
BOND: To the cradle of liberty.
OGLETREE: -- had moved up South and to Boston. And that to me was a rude awakening that I needed to be in law school, but also that I needed to be focused on what was going on right there in my community.
BOND: In your education both at Stanford and then at Harvard Law School, surely this goes toward developing your leadership skills. What is it about Stanford and Harvard, these very different places as you described, that made Charles Ogletree who he is today?
OGLETREE: Well, at Stanford, first of all there're a tremendous black faculty, another faculty who gave me the opportunity to grow, to be independent, to take risks and to be creative. And I learned that both what I learned in the books and in the streets, so to speak, enhanced my ability to think about broader problems. I wrote an honor's thesis, in my senior year about what was then called Zimbabwe and Azania -- Azania, South Africa. And my thesis was that if we really applied serious economic sanctions, that it would end apartheid as we knew it in the twentieth century. And we know that it happened in Zimbabwe. It took a lot much longer period of time, but it happened in South Africa ultimately. And I knew that because, not of what I had read in the classroom, in the classes I had took on southern Africa, but because of my experiences in the anti-apartheid movement at Stanford and my work in the divestment movement to getting Stanford to divest.
I learned a lot more than in the classroom. And I wrote this thesis. And my instructor ended up giving me an A- because he said it was a beautifully written thesis, very powerful and compelling, but he thought that I was a little bit too optimistic in thinking that sanctions would really bring change to South Africa and to Zimbabwe. So when I returned to Stanford in 1991 as a member of the board of trustees, I went to see him. I said, "Professor Abernathy, I think you owe me an A+ now. I was right, and you were wrong. And he said, "You're right. I never imagined the world would change."
So, it was that opportunity to really explore in depth issues that made a difference. And at Harvard, it was the same sort of challenge, learning the law and learning how to relate it to -- the theory to the practice. As much as I was learning contracts and torts and civil procedure and property, and juris prudence at Harvard Law School, I was watching, in Boston, civil rights violations every singe day. I was witnessing the idea of resistance to change every single day. And I made it clear that those two things were relevant to me.
And the other way that made a big difference was that I was deeply interested in the issues. It was not just studying civil rights or studying constitutional law. I was taught by Derrick Bell, learned a lot from him. But in 1977, I went to see Archibald Cox. Archibald Cox had been the Watergate prosecutor who was fired by Nixon. He was the Solictor's General, the government's top lawyer, and won many cases. He was a leading constitutional scholar of his time. And he was a professor at Harvard Law School. I went to see him with a specific concern. What was it?
There was a white guy by the name of Allan Bakke from California who had sued the University of California Davis Medical School because he had not been admitted, and he claims because other minority students were admitted on the program that denied him admission. As I say in my book and as I said then, Bakke was rejected at all the schools he applied to, not just the California Medical School.
And I went to see Archibald Cox, who was a lawyer, and my goal was to both read about these issues but to apply them. And I went to see him and he agreed to see me in the stacks. And he said, "Mr. Ogletree, can I help you?" I said, "Yes, Professor Cox. I know you represent California. You're going to argue to defend affirmative action. I'm the national president of the Black Law Students' Association." That was my role. "And I'm here because I want to make sure you make the best argument possible to preserve affirmative action."
And he looked at me, and I don't know what he thought, but he heard me out. And here I was -- I was not even a law school graduate, didn't have a license, had never handled a case. Now here I am talking to a Supreme Court expert about how to argue his case. But it was that passion about Bakke that was ingrained in me because not only was I there because of cases like Brown and the whole movement for affirmative action, but I felt it was my obligation and our obligation to preserve those modest and small gains for the next generation.
And so, that's what made it so wonderful meeting these great people, Derrick Bell, Archibald Cox, Gary Bellow, who was a very prominent activist who worked in the same office I worked at as a public defender before I came. He represented Cesar Chavez, the Black Panthers. He was a scholar-activist, and all these people were scholar-activists who influenced my sense that you have to have both an inside and outside strategy. You have to know the theory but also be able to apply it. And that's what the Stanford experience and ultimately the Harvard experience did to help prepare me to become a member of the legal profession.
BOND: It sounds like your own life. You teach, you're in the classroom. You're instructing students at the same time. You're representing clients really all over the country.
OGLETREE: That's exactly right, representing the survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riots and the reparations lawsuit from that devastating episode. I was Anita Hill's lawyer when she testified against Clarence Thomas and in the confirmation hearings in 1991. I represented the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton and Cornel West, Mike Espy when he was prosecuted here, Frank Carter, who many people don't know -- my first boss, was the public defender as Monica Lewinsky's first lawyer. I represented him when Kenneth Starr came after the lawyer to get his notes of interviewing with the client, which I thought was highly objectionable. And so there's case after case after case where my sense is that, it's not enough to just know the theory, and the concept of law. It's important to have your involvement in everyday aspects of the application of the law, and that's been very important. I represented the NAACP back in 1991 before Anita Hill, when Wade Henderson asked me to help write the report, a dispassionate and objective report on Clarence Thomas.
BOND: Exactly. And that helped shift some sentiment within the NAACP, which had been attracted to Thomas' blackness --
OGLETREE: That's exactly right.
BOND: -- as a quality --
OGLETREE: Exactly right.
BOND: -- and didn't know much or ignored his actual record.
OGLETREE: Right. I read his few opinions. I read his speeches, and law review articles he had written. And it was clear to me that even at that young age before he was a member of the court and even only had been on the D.C. Circuit Court for one year, he already had some dangerous ideas about originalism, about natural law and other ideological perspectives that I thought, as a scholar, were dangerous. And it was up to the NAACP to decide what it wanted to do, but they should at least know his record. John Hope Franklin also wrote a piece for that as well. But the whole goal was "I can't sit back at the academy and have these ideas and not try to service organizations like the NAACP to give them my view of what the record is so that they could make a decision about someone like Justice Thomas."
BOND: Well, believe me, it was much appreciated.
OGLETREE: Well, thank you.
BOND: I'm going to move onto some questions about leadership generally, and leadership philosophy. Can you -- what difference do you see between vision, philosophy and style in expressing your leadership?
OGLETREE: I think it requires -- the most important one is vision. You can have all the style in the world, you could have all these philosophical concepts. But if you don't have a vision that would take you somewhere, the other two don't matter. And that's why it's important to have a sense of not just where we are, and try to analyze -- I'm not a historian. I'm more of a futurist than a historian. I mean, I have to look forward because if I had to focus on what we do now, it would seem hopeless, and there would seem no possibility of success. But the idea is to have an idea about the strategy of how we go forward.
And my vision has always been one that's been both theoretical and practical. That is, trying to address the issue of race in its most complex forms -- how to get along, as people, with differences around the world, around the nation, and literally around the neighborhood, number one. But then more practically, the vision talks about how to get beyond the tendency to think that everything can be solved by the legal system, or in a case, or in the courts. I have matured, I would say, to realize the courts are important but not the only way to solve our problems. I have matured to understand that there is a concept about self, sort of self help and personal responsibility, that as much as government should and ought to be held accountable and responsible for addressing the needs of the needy, we also have an even greater goal and challenge to address these issues as well.
That's why I've been pushing the idea of parents getting involved in public education. That's why I've been very skeptical of these silly plans like Leave No Child Left Behind -- No Child Left Behind -- which made sense when Marian Wright Edelman talked about it and gave it a philosophy but is completely ridiculous as applied by the Bush administration and its application to our concerns today. And that's the vision, to say that we have to be responsible. We have to figure out a way how those who fled, the black lower class that fled, like whites, as a result of integration and abandoned urban America, have to find a way to reinvest and recapture urban America. Because when 50 percent of our children are dropping out of high schools in urban areas around the country, it's not someone else's problem. It's our problem, and we have to take account.
When we have over a million people in jails and prisons and over half of them are African American, we have to think about re-entry programs because those young men who were sentenced when they were seventeen for crack cocaine, served fifteen years, they don't have a high school diploma, they can't get a job, they can't vote -- they have no way to be functional and effective members of society -- our vision has to tell us we have to find a way of incorporating, those young men back into the fabric of our society if we're going to make a difference.
But it's also style as well, as since that that in order for us to be credible, we have to be able to relate in intergenerational ways. And I talked about some of the clients, but I also represented Tupac Shakur at a critical time in his career before he was murdered in 1996. And I can see "Here is an artist with tremendous talent who was often confused, but who is someone that represented the frustration and mirrored the anxiety of our hip hop generation." That's why it's so important. I'm working with Russell Simmons, who is looking at reparations and trying to educate the younger generation why it's important for them, as a sense of understanding history, the enormous sacrifices that African Americans have made and Africans made to this country that have yet to have been documented in some serious way.
And at the same time I'm encouraged that my former student, Barack Obama, a young African American, the first black president to Harvard Law Review, is now -- hopefully will be an African American senator from the state of Illinois. That's the vision to not simply try to continue to expect those of us who are fifty and over to solve our problems, but find those who are twenty and thirty to take our places. We can't waste this talent or waste this opportunity. So, I'm reaching out, aggressively to find this young brilliant talent to take over the challenges that we have. And you have to be able to, in terms of style, you have to be able to operate in the suites where decisions are made, and in the streets, where the pressure comes, to help make those decisions. You have to have a strategy that involves operating in both environments or else we have no chance of succeeding.
BOND: You know, Charles Houston who was Thurgood Marshall's teacher and mentor, said, "A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society." How in your teaching do you impart a vision to your students that makes them decide, "I'm not going to be a parasite, I'm going to be a social engineer"? How do you do that?
OGLETREE: It's actually easier than one might expect because I'm a devotee of Charles Hamilton Houston. In fact, we will be creating an institute at Harvard in his name this year, 2004, that I'll be directing to continue his vision and the Center of Race and Justice. And we do that this way -- I believe in reaching students at the lowest common denominator. They all are going to be lawyers somewhere. They don't all have to work with my dear friend Steve Bright, handling death penalty cases for the Southern Center of Human Rights project, born in Atlanta. They don't all have to be Bryan Stevenson doing God's work in the state of Alabama. They can't all be Alan Morrison, the sort of guru of public interest law out of Washington, D.C. They can't be my dear friend, Nadine Strossen, who heads the ACLU, or Ralph Nader who has some progressive ideas about products, liability and consumer interests.
But they can all in some respects contribute whether they're at a law firm or prosecutors, public defenders or judges. And that's the whole goal to say that you can be a social engineer by giving your money, by working at a school on a Saturday morning, by taking on a pro bono case and saving someone on death row, by creating an innocence project in your community, by helping the Boys and Girls Center have articles of incorporation, and become a nonprofit organization. And I compel them to make choices, and tell them that "The only thing that you have to -- the only thing you need to do this is moral courage. You have the support. You have the intelligence. You have the credibility. You have the resources. And don't tell me you can't do it because you're at a law firm. It's even more compelling to do it at a law firm. Don't tell me you can't be socially responsible as a prosecutor. You have more of a responsibility to avoid the disaster we saw in the state of Illinois," where twenty-five people were found guilty, were sentenced to death, they were going to die, and we found out that thirteen of them were completely innocent.
I'm not saying that they had a claim that they a reasonable doubt. They were innocent. They were the wrong person. and it's that sort of almost-tragedy that tells me that students have to understand that if we, if we believe in this system of democracy, if we believe in this legal system of equal justice under the law, that we have to find ways, no matter where we go, no matter what we do, to practice that philosophy whether, it's on the defense or plaintiff's side, on the defense and prosecution side, whether it's in the suite or on the streets, whether it's public interest or private interest, whether it's domestic or international -- there is no way that we can't find a way to take the social engineering principles of Houston and apply them to our professional lives and our personal lives.
BOND: Now, does your leadership ability find itself in your ability to have other people follow your vision, or in your ability to articulate a broad agenda for a movement, or in a mix of these?
OGLETREE: It's really the latter more than the former. There is some of the former where people follow my vision. But I don't want to be the Pied Piper. What I want to do is to say, "The door is open. The opportunities are broad. Grab any one of them and move forward."
When I ran for National BLSA president in 1977, BLSA was ten years old and I was elected but never had a black woman. It didn't make sense to me that we had this organization representing black woman and men in law schools and no women were elected. Well, when I finished my year, Theresa Cropper was the first African American woman to ever lead BLSA. And did this start a trend? The next six were all black women. And the overwhelming majority, since '78 to the year 2004 have been black women. We have to make sure that we expand, and the vision is to say, "The leadership is open to everybody."
When I was a public defender, I took a lot of talented black students who wanted to go to firms elsewhere. I said, "You can make a difference right here," and I brought students from around the country to work there. When I left, going into teaching, a lot of people left with me. Randy Stone is a professor at the University of Chicago. Kim Taylor-Thompson and her husband Tony Thompson are professors at NYU, as is Randy Hertz, another person who worked with me. Amani [Angela] Davis is a professor at the American University of Washington College of Law.
It's happened around the country, in the same sense with those who've gone on to practice in law firms. So my idea is to open up opportunities and not just to hold them. Public television -- I was one of the first, sort of, noted African Americans to do a lot of moderated public television. And I asked Kim Taylor to do that and she's done it extremely well. Kathleen Sullivan, a white woman from Stanford who deaned there, and my whole idea was that I opened up the door to do something, but the goal is to say, "I don't have all the ideas. I don't even have the best ideas." So, I'm looking, always, to be replaced and to have somebody else generate new ideas, new visions, and new opportunities.