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May 02, 2024 Feature

Charles J. Ogletree Jr.: A Humble Civil Rights Defender and Public Theologian

Willie J. Epps Jr., Angela J. Davis, and Roger A. Fairfax Jr.


At the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in Denver last August, I received a phone call from Dean Roger A. Fairfax Jr. informing me that my mentor and professor, Charles J. Ogletree Jr., had passed at the age of 70. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016, the cruel illness slowly robbed us of an internationally known civil rights scholar, public theologian, author, and trial lawyer who primarily represented indigent criminal defendants, as well as high-profile clients such as Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., rapper Tupac Shakur, the descendants of the 1921 Tulsa race riots, and Professor Anita Hill. As an award-winning Harvard Law School professor raised in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) faith tradition, he mentored Michelle Robinson, Barack Obama, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, among others. He designed and hosted “Saturday School,” which exposed students to diverse leaders impacting the law. He was about the inclusion of all of God’s people and frowned on excluding others.

Professor Ogletree came into my life in the early 1990s at Amherst College, where he keynoted a distinguished lectureship program. A college professor of mine introduced us, mentioning that I had applied to Harvard. Without hesitation, Professor Ogletree stated, “When you get in (did you notice the affirmation?), come see me. I want you to be my research assistant.” I thought to myself that he obviously had not seen my LSAT score and that he was inadvertently giving me false hope. Nevertheless, I blurted out, “Okay. That sounds amazing, sir.” He saw things I could not see, dreamed dreams I could not. Saw greatness in me at a crucial time in my development.

After being blessed with a letter of acceptance and moving to Cambridge, I went directly to Ogletree’s office. As promised, he put me to work conducting legal research, drafting sections of law review articles, and assisting with special projects. He was a kind, generous, and thoughtful boss. Looking back, I got so much more out of the relationship than he did. I marvel at how he constantly uplifted others, including the poor and disenfranchised, and African American lawyers most have never heard of. I most admire Ogletree, however, for being a wonderful husband to Pamela Barnes Ogletree, and outstanding father and grandfather.

His hero was Charles Hamilton Houston, the architect of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case that desegregated public schools. Professor Ogletree spent decades educating law students, lawyers, and laypeople about Houston’s groundbreaking work. In fact, he was talking about Houston when I first met him and when he came to Kansas City a decade ago to speak at the annual Jackson County Bar Association’s Judge Kit Carson Roque Jr. Scholarship Banquet. In 2005, to honor Houston’s legacy, Ogletree founded the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, an organization at Harvard that addresses systemic inequalities and advocates for racial justice. So even though Ogletree no longer walks this earth, he continues to uplift others.

I keep a couple of photographs, artifacts if you will, of Professor Ogletree and me in my chambers because I have tried to model my legal career after his. In my humble opinion, he was one of the greatest public theologians I have ever met. He was grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the A.M.E. church community, viewed the Bible as a source of liberation and inclusion, and engaged the faith community and larger society to fight for the marginalized and oppressed. He loved his clients and students because his A.M.E. faith background demanded nothing less.

The most important work I did as a Black Baptist lawyer during my decades of private practice was serving on the Criminal Justice Act Panel defending indigent individuals in federal court who could not afford to hire a lawyer. I represented those accused of gun and drug offenses, alongside financial fraud and human trafficking cases. My clients were not popular, well-educated, or raised in loving and supportive homes. Most were never given a chance of being successful, surrounded by poverty and disfunction their entire lives. Now, as a federal judge, I have continued to look for ways to uplift and treat fairly those that society targets, denigrates, and discards.

I once thought that a public theologian needed to resemble Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with seminary training and a public role in advancing social justice in our community. I now understand a public theologian fighting oppression can have any vocation, including that of a law professor.


I remember the day I met Charles Ogletree. It was October 5, 1982—my first day as a staff attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS) and also my first day as a practicing lawyer. Tree (as we called him) was the Training Director at PDS—the person responsible for training the new class of PDS lawyers. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was being trained by someone who would go on to be one of the greatest lawyers in the history of PDS and ultimately one of the greatest lawyers in the world. It was my great fortune to be a member of the only class of lawyers that Tree trained at PDS.

Tree was a great training director. He not only taught me the skills necessary to be an effective advocate for my clients (direct and cross-examination, opening statements and closing arguments, etc.), he instilled in me the passion and commitment to my clients that is characteristic of PDS lawyers. When I walked across the street to the DC Superior Court, I felt like the knight in shining armor depicted on the PDS logo above the words “Champion of Liberty.” He made me proud to stand between the government and my clients and zealously fight for their liberty. While I was going through the training program, Tree told me that I was going to be the Director of PDS someday. I laughed and told him that he was crazy.

Whenever Tree tried a case, the courtroom was packed—not only with PDS lawyers, but with courtroom staff and even judges and prosecutors! Everyone wanted to watch him work his magic in the courtroom. Tree captured the respect and admiration of judges and prosecutors, and jurors seemed to believe whatever he said—not just because of his skill but because he reeked of honesty and sincerity. That was who he was—not only a brilliant lawyer but a genuinely good person.

Tree went on to become a highly respected professor at Harvard Law School, where he founded the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and the Criminal Justice Institute. He was a nationally known public intellectual, a brilliant author of several books and numerous scholarly articles, and the lead attorney in many important cases. His many clients included Anita Hill and the survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Tree also represented James Ford, a poor Black man sentenced to death in Georgia. He argued Mr. Ford’s case before the Supreme Court of the United States and convinced the Court to reverse Mr. Ford’s conviction.

Despite all of the important work he was doing at Harvard and everywhere else, Tree somehow always had time to answer my phone calls and serve as a trusted advisor and mentor. When I was appointed to be the Director of PDS in 1991, I called Tree and reminded him of his prediction nine years earlier. I would never have been the Director of PDS or a law professor if not for Charles Ogletree. He always saw something in me that I could never have seen in myself. Remarkably, I later discovered that he did the same thing for hundreds if not thousands of other people. So many people I know have a similar story about how he changed their lives forever, and we can’t figure out how he did so much for all of us while changing the world for the better.

There will never be another like Charles J. Ogletree. I feel blessed that he was a part of my life. His legacy will live on forever.


As I noted upon Charles Ogletree’s passing this past August, not only has the world lost a drum major for justice, a legal giant, and an extraordinary human being, I have lost a mentor and a dear friend. I am a law school dean because of Tree. I became a law professor because of Tree. I practiced criminal defense and served as a federal prosecutor because of Tree. It is quite daunting to reduce to a few hundred words an adequate description of Tree’s tremendous impact, but I will try.

After talking my way onto Tree’s Harvard Law School office hours schedule while I was still an undergraduate, I was immersed in stories from his legendary tenure at the Public Defender Service (PDS) in my hometown of Washington, DC. It became immediately clear that Tree was not only a world-class defense attorney, respected by colleagues, clients, and judges; he was an extraordinary and generous mentor, helping to train, develop, and inspire countless public defenders in the District of Columbia and beyond. It is no surprise that Tree would make the decision to share his immense talents with generations of law students from his perch on the Harvard Law School faculty and as leader of the legendary Criminal Justice Institute (CJI).

I was fortunate to snag a part-time job as an undergraduate research assistant to Tree. Although Tree gave me periodic spot legal research assignments, most of my work was as a student assistant for his CJI defense clinic, where I got the opportunity to support the clinical instructors and student lawyers in their work on behalf of indigent clients accused of crimes in Boston courts. At CJI, I was exposed to legendary criminal defense practitioners such as Jamie Gardner, Mary Kennedy, (now-Judge) Dave Poole, Abbe Smith, and the late Bill Talley. I also worked as an investigator for talented law student attorneys like Ron Sullivan, who would go on to join and eventually become Director of PDS, and then continue to follow in Tree’s footsteps to serve on the Harvard Law School faculty and direct CJI.

I later relished the opportunity as a law student to take his CJI criminal defense course myself, and to participate in his legendary Trial Advocacy Workshop, which brought to Cambridge from around the country many of the leading lights of the bench and bar in trial advocacy. I also continued to serve as Tree’s research assistant, working at his elbow as he pursued all manner of important projects, from representing both indigent and high-profile clients to writing speeches, books, and articles on racial justice and criminal defense ethics; leading his legendary Saturday School program; convening and facilitating discussions among thought leaders of the day; and researching and amplifying the life and contributions of Charles Hamilton Houston, the path-breaking civil rights lawyer and legendary Howard Law leader Tree admired and, in many ways, emulated.

Indeed, it was Tree’s establishment of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School that was perhaps the crowning achievement of his superlative career. The 2005 occasion of the celebration of the Institute’s charter brought together hundreds of people touched by Tree’s work, passion, and example. Twelve years later, an even larger gathering at Harvard Law School honored and celebrated Tree as he stepped away from law teaching not long after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Those assembled shared many words of praise for this man who had achieved so much in his storied career in the courtroom, classroom, halls of power, and the community.

Tree’s impact on the quality of criminal justice in the United States is immeasurable. There are countless criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, professors, and criminal justice reform advocates whose lives and careers have been molded and influenced by Tree’s example and guidance. Perhaps more importantly, Tree modeled the best of humanity—the grace, kindness, selflessness, and generosity that are sorely needed in the world today. I am grateful to his loving wife, Pam, and their children Rasheeda and Charles, for sharing Tree with all of us. It is my fervent hope that we all will honor his legacy by continuing his good works and shaping and empowering generations to come. Rest in power, Tree.

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Willie J. Epps Jr.

Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Missouri

Willie J. Epps Jr. is the Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Missouri, and the Immediate Past Chair of the ABA National Conference of Federal Trial Judges.

Angela J. Davis

Distinguished Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law

Angela J. Davis is a Distinguished Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and a former Director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

Roger A. Fairfax Jr.

Dean of the American University Washington College of Law

Roger A. Fairfax Jr. is Dean of the American University Washington College of Law, incoming Dean of the Howard University School of Law, and a member of the Editorial Board of Criminal Justice.