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Charles Ogletree Jr.

JERUSALEM – The lawyer representing Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor at the center of a national race controversy, was a mentor of both Barack and Michelle Obama and served on the president’s black advisory council.

Charles Ogletree Jr., himself a Harvard University professor, is closely linked to the Black Panthers and to radical black ideology. He is a key member of the reparations movement and once pursued the possibility of bringing a class action lawsuit to win reparations for descendants of African slaves.

“I met Barack when he arrived at Harvard Law School in fall of 1988. He was quiet and unassuming, but had an incredibly sharp mind and a thirst for knowledge,” Ogletree said in an interview last year with Essence Magazine.

“Even then I saw his ability to quickly grasp the most complicated legal issues and sort them out in a clear, concise fashion,” said Ogletree.

Ogletree explained Obama was a regular participant in an after-class activity the Harvard professor created called the Saturday School Program – a series of workshops and meetings held Saturday mornings designed to expose minority students to issues in the study of law.

Ogletree also told Essence that he mentored Michelle Obama when she enrolled at Harvard three years before her future husband. Ogletree said he gave Michelle career advice.

“I met Michelle when she started her legal career here at Harvard in the fall of 1985, and I was able to watch her develop into a very strong and powerful student leader. She was an active member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, where she served as a student attorney for indigent clients who had civil cases and needed legal help” Ogletree related.

“I routinely gave career advice, and often personal advice, to students who would come in with questions about where they should work, how they should use their legal skills and talent, and was it possible to do well and do good,” Ogletree said.

“My advice to people like Barack and Michelle was that they could easily navigate the challenges of a corporate career and find a variety of ways to serve their community,” he said.

During Obama’s senatorial career, Ogletree advised the politician on reforming the criminal-justice system as well on constitutional issues. Ogletree served on the black advisory panel of Obama’s presidential campaign.

Black radical politics

Ogletree is closely linked to radical black activism. As a student in 1970 at Stanford University near San Francisco, a center of black radicalism at the time, Ogletree organizing an Afrocentric dormitory. He edited a campus Black Panther newspaper called The Real News and traveled to Africa and Cuba as part of student activist groups. Ogletree attended nearly every day of the trial of Black Power activist and communist Angela Davis.

Ogletree moved on to Harvard Law School, where he continued his political activism, becoming national president of the Black Law Students Association.

Ogletree gained national prominence in 1991 when he represented Anita Hill during the controversial Senate confirmation hearings at which she accused Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

In 2000, Ogletree joined the Reparations Coordinating Committee, serving as the group’s co-chair. The committee pursued a lawsuit to win reparations for descendants of African slaves. The committee was convened by the TransAfrica Forum, a partner organization of the leftist Institute for Policy Studies.

Ogletree is now representing Gates, the professor at the center of race controversy after he was handcuffed in his home by police following a burglary report. Obama mentioned the incident Wednesday in a prime-time news conference, accusing police of “acted stupidly” in dealing with Gates.

The president acknowledged he did not know all the facts in the case but used it to highlight the issue of racial profiling.

“What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped … disproportionately,” Obama said. “That’s just a fact.”

Obama again commented on the matter in an ABC News interview yesterday, stating, “I think that it doesn’t make sense, with all the problems that we have out there, to arrest a guy in his own home if he’s not causing a serious disturbance. What I can tell, the sergeant who was involved is an outstanding police officer, but my suspicion is that it would have been better if cooler heads prevailed.”

Ogletree and Gates gave starkly different reports of the incident than police.

A report from Sgt. James Crowley said Gates was shouting so loudly it was impossible to talk on his police radio. Crowley said he handcuffed Gates on the porch after the professor shouted, “This is what happens to black men in America.”

Ogletree issued a statement claiming Gates returned from a trip to China to find his front door damaged and impossible to open from the outside, even with the help of his driver, who is also black. When Gates entered through the back door, he saw a police officer on the porch, who said he was investigating a reported break-in at the home, according to Ogletree.

Gates said he showed the officer his Harvard identity card and Massachusetts driver’s license and asked to see the officer’s identification, Ogletree’s statement said. Gates continued to ask for the police officer’s name and was arrested when he followed the officer out his front door, the statement said.


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