Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of Black Role Models

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.