Charles Ogletree is no stranger to difficult legal battles. A Harvard
Law School professor and eminent legal theorist, Ogletree counseled
Anita Hill through the Senate hearings that inserted the phrase
"sexual harassment" into the national lexicon. He has even defended
the likes of Mafioso John Gotti and played a leading role in drafting
South Africa's post-apartheid constitution. But Ogletree's next
legal effort could easily prove his most challenging.
In November, Ogletree announced the collective intention of a number
of highly respected black lawyers to sue the U.S. government--as
well as individuals and private companies who directly benefited--for
reparations for slavery. "The focus is on recognizing the enormous
impact of slavery," Ogletree says, "without necessarily figuring
out what the remedy will be or how it will be dispersed."
Joining him are some of America's most successful attorneys, including
Cochran, defender of O.J. Simpson, and Sean "Puffy" Combs; Alexander
Pires Jr., who won a $1 billion settlement from the U.S. Department
of Agriculture for discrimination against black farmers; and Richard
Scruggs, who secured a $368 billion settlement for states against
the tobacco companies.
Since making the announcement, Ogletree has been keeping his usual
hectic schedule, dividing his time between teaching, speaking and
legal work. He and his associates rarely have spoken to the media
about their intentions. When they do, they compare their efforts
to the successful crusade of European Jews to gain reparations for
past injustices. "When the Germans and the Austrians and the Swiss
responded to the Holocaust, they not only acknowledged individual
victims, but they also acknowledged the impact on greater communities,"
he says of the $8 billion reparations settlement which Germany,
France and Austria, along with Swiss banks, recently agreed to pay
Holocaust victims. "They took a responsibility as defendants, as
a government, even though not every person in that society was responsible
or culpable. This situation is in no material respects really different."
As early as 1866, Congress passed a bill endorsing the procurement
of 40 acres and a mule for every newly freedman. President Andrew
Johnson vetoed it. Yet Ogletree and his associates have pulled the
issue from the fringes of contemporary debate to the very heart
of the American mainstream. Still, recent polls show as many as
75 percent of Americans are opposed to reparations. This despite
the fact that, as Ogletree points out, blacks endured more than
250 years of legal slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow segregation.
In fact, to Ogletree, 75 percent opposition is encouraging, and
only further evidence that legal channels are the most appropriate
for his cause. "We have always recognized the majority will but
minority rights," Ogletree says. "And if popular will decided every
moral issue we would not have the right of women to choose, we would
not have the opportunity for people to vote and participate in society
equally, we would not have constitutional protections for minorities,
and we would not have limits to police power." But is the goal really
practically attainable? Ogletree certainly thinks so. Perhaps a
lifetime spent overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds has given
him the wherewithal to believe so.
Raised in the dusty railway town of Merced, California, the first
of six children, Ogletree felt slavery's legacy firsthand. His father
left school in the fifth grade and spent his life as an itinerant
farmhand. Practically from the time he could walk, Ogletree picked
fruit to help his family make a living. As long he could remember,
whites and blacks remained on opposite sides of the tracks in Merced.
Ogletree's exceptional grades in high school led his counselor
to recommend that he apply to Stanford. Too embarrassed to admit
that he'd never heard of the place, he told her he didn't want to
go to school somewhere it was so cold, supposing the university
was in Connecticut. But after arriving at the university in 1970,
he didn't take long to adjust, graduating in three years with Phi
Beta Kappa honors. It was at Stanford that he also found his calling,
becoming the president of Stanford Students for the Defense of Angela
Davis and All Political Prisoners.
Ogletree went on to complete a master's in political science at
Stanford and then attain a law degree from Harvard. He then worked
at the public defenders office in Washington, widely regarded as
the best in the country. While there, Ogletree gained acclaim for
his near perfect record in the courtroom. With time, he wanted to
teach, and in 1986, took a faculty position at Harvard.
What may surprise many detractors who still don't take the reparations
movement seriously is this: According to Ogletree, he and his associates
already have plaintiffs and defendants in mind, though of course
he won't discuss the details on the record. Legal action, he says,
is imminent. "Before the year is out some important decisions should
Conscious of what is at stake, Ogletree knows that, if successful,
his pursuit of reparations could prove momentous. Ogletree calls
his push the first step toward redemption. "It's going to be confrontational,"
he says. "It's going to be divisive, but we can't really fully remedy
our problems of race by ignoring them."
Alex Kellogg is a reporting fellow for The Chronicle
of Higher Education.