Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Education

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.