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Charles James Ogletree Jr., native Mercedian, UC Merced champion, Harvard legal scholar, dies at 70

August 4, 2023
Charles Ogletree died Aug. 4, 2023.
Charles Ogletree was a champion of UC Merced.

The late Charles Ogletree, Jr., (December 31, 1952 - August 4, 2023) a civil rights icon and proud native of Merced, was also a great friend and champion of The University of California, Merced, and the first recipient of the university's Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance.

Professor Ogletree delivered the academic keynote address for the UC Merced campus convocation and opening ceremony on Sept. 5, 2005. His speech is one of the founding documents of the university.

In remarks titled, "A Meditation on Success," he drew from his journey from South Merced to Stanford University, from Stanford to Harvard Law School, from Harvard to the professional world as an attorney representing figures like Anita Hill and Tupac Shakur, and from the courtroom back to Harvard Law as a tenured professor. In a speech that is at once inspirational, informative, and prophetic, Prof. Ogletree also drew from his faith, the Book of Isaiah Chapter 40, his deep love for his family, the words of Nelson Mandela, and the University of California charter, culminating in a powerful reflection on the unique position of UC Merced in the world.

"As I think about the UC Merced campus," he said, "I too envision a unique place, in California, in America, and indeed, in the world. I envision that, when your children and grandchildren have a choice of universities to attend, whether it is Harvard or Howard, Stanford or the University of Texas, Princeton or even UCLA or Berkeley, they will say, 'Thanks, but no thanks. I'm setting higher goals, and the institution I choose to attend is UC Merced!'"

Echoing the spirit and philosophies of education heard in the speeches of thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and W.E.B. Du Bois, Professor Ogletree urged the founders of the new university to move forward with a bold blend of tradition and innovation.

The "charter and the name declare that this is the 'University of California,'" he said, "It is not the University of Berlin nor of New Haven, which we are to copy; it is not the University of Oakland nor of San Francisco, which we are to create; but it is the University of this state. It must be adapted to this people, to their public and private schools, to their peculiar geographical position, to the requirements of their new society and their undeveloped resources. It is not the foundation of an ecclesiastical body nor of private individuals. It is 'of the people and for the people' - not in any low or unworthy sense, but in the highest and noblest relations to their intellectual and moral well-being."

Professor Ogletree also lauded UC Merced's diversity, encouraging the university to "celebrate our diversity, and see diversity and excellence as complimentary, not in conflict."

Then-Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey said Professor Ogletree's speech "was exactly what the students needed to hear, and it had special meaning given his early years in Merced." A columnist in the Merced Sun-Star wrote that "it should be required reading for every high school student in Merced County. Ogletree's rise from South Merced to a position of prominence at America's foremost university is an inspiration for all."

At Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Professor Ogletree was the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and the founder and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. His office was as busy as a courthouse: students, colleagues, legal clients, and admirers lined up for counsel and guidance. A Harvard undergraduate once wrote of visiting Professor Ogletree, "I recall vividly how, as a junior at Harvard College, I landed a coveted position on Professor Ogletree's office hours list. My ostensible purpose for taking an office hours slot away from a deserving law school student was to discuss the college seminar paper I was writing on the District of Columbia statehood movement. Although I did leave that meeting with several fruitful research leads, I was much more satisfied with achieving my true aim-to meet in person this man about whom I had heard so many wonderful things."

Professor Ogletree's papers, spanning his Harvard career as scholar, teacher, and legal theorist from 1985 to 2000, and comprising 500 boxes of letters, legal files, and academic course materials, were donated to Harvard Law School by his family in 2022. In a 2017 tribute to Prof. Ogletree at Harvard, attended by more than 600 people, fellow law professor David Wilkins said, "When the history of Harvard Law School in the 20 th century is written, Charles Ogletree will be among the first ones mentioned."

The demand on Professor Ogletree's time in Cambridge, and across the nation and world, rendered his many returns to Merced and UC Merced as clear indications of his commitment and support for his hometown and the university. He was the ideal person to receive UC Merced's inaugural Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance.

'It was an honor to be the first recipient of this distinguished award, and to share it with your mother and father present," Professor Ogletree wrote in a letter to Sherrie Spendlove, who founded the prize in honor of her parents. "It has really set a tone in my mind for striving to achieve great things in this environment, and I wanted to praise you for your efforts. It is always a pleasure to come back to Merced, but the programs held at the University of California - Merced, Merced High School and Golden Valley High School were exceptional. I know that my mother and father, Willi Mae and Charles Ogletree, were looking down from heaven with great pride."

Professor Ogletree's letter to Sherrie contained his signature emphases on family, home, friendship, home, faith, education, and "striving to achieve great things." These hallmarks were not lost upon former First Lady Michelle Obama when she delivered the Commencement address at UC Merced in 2009, and lauded Professor Ogletree, a mentor and teacher to Michelle Obama and her husband, former U.S. President Barack Obama.

"And then there is my friend and former law school professor, Charles Ogletree, a product of the Merced public schools," Michelle Obama said in remarks reprinted in The New York Times. "Now, he is an example of how you can bring your skills back. His ambitions took him far away from home, but he has never forgotten where he came from. Each year, with his help, Merced's high schools are able to hand out scholarships, not just for the best and the brightest students, but also for many students who are just stuck in poverty and simply need a hand up to compete."

By the time Professor Ogletree visited UC Merced again in 2016, the number of Spendlove Prize laureates had grown to a list of nine distinguished award recipients. The tenth winner and 2016 Spendlove Prize recipient would be Prof. Anita Hill, whose testimony during the 1991 U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas raised national and global awareness of sexual harassment. Professor Ogletree served as legal counsel for Hill during the hearings.

Twenty-five years later, he shared the stage with Hill as she received the Spendlove Prize during a ceremony at the Merced Theater. During his return to Merced, Prof. Ogletree also signed copies of his book All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education at the local Barnes & Nobles.

UC Merced Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz was on hand when the Merced Courthouse on N Street was renamed the Charles James Ogletree Courthouse during a February 17, 2023, ceremony. Friends, family, state representatives, and members of the community who cherished Professor Ogletree's accomplishments, legacy, and connections to Merced turned out for a standing-room only tribute followed by a dinner at the Merced Women's Club.

"He hasn't forgotten where he came from," said Professor Ogletree's brother Richard during the ceremony. "He remembers his roots."

Richard Ogletree said that while his brother was often in the company of global leaders and dignitaries like Nelson Mandela and former U.S. president Bill Clinton, he always took time to give back to youth and the community in Merced, with a special emphasis on those areas of Merced that are marginalized or underrepresented in the public sphere.

U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who delivered remarks remotely at the courthouse renaming, said, "Professor Ogltree has been an incredible force of nature, a dynamic public servant who has advanced the law for social justice, civil rights, civil liberties and tolerance in our society like none other. Charles Ogletree has really brought to life, through his teaching, his advocacy, through his understanding, through his analysis and insight with respect to our society, that America is in a continuing march toward a more perfect union, and he has continued to advance the law in that direction, lifting up and bringing to life values such as liberty and justice for all, equal protection under the law, free and fair elections, and the notion of our country as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. He's also inspired countless law students, including President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and numerous members of the House Democratic Caucus that I serve with today including Congresswoman Terri Sewell."