BY MATT HUTCHINS
Professor Charles Ogletree ’78 is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and the founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. He has helped Sen. Barack Obama throughout his political career and is a senior advisor to his presidential campaign. Record Publisher Matthew W. Hutchins caught up with him this week to discuss the importance of Barack Obama ’91 and his historic candidacy.
MH: In what ways do you see the theme of the conference as parallel to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama?
CO: The theme of the conference and the historic nature of the Obama presidency intersect in many ways. Our institute theme is pathways to participation and creating more opportunities for participation and membership across ideological, race, gender, class and religious lines. We do that by making all our events are free and open to the public and by presenting a wide range of opinions, ranging from the conservative jurist Sandra Day O’Connor to the Archbishop Desmond Tutu talking about what participation meant to South Africa when the people for the first time voted in a democratic election in 1994. Each of those honored represent enormous strides in the opening of opportunities for underrepresented groups and participation in all communities without limits of race, class and gender. To that extent it parallels in many ways an election which could be a watershed moment not only American history but in world history.
What are some of the ways in which we can see the connection between Brown vs. Board of Education and Sen. Barack Obama?
Senator Barack Obama’s case is so compelling because as a young man he hardly knew his father. His mother, pregnant as a teenager, had to raise him nearly alone. I think the amount of progress he has made from that beginning is an example of the American Dream, that a person can come from the most challenging of circumstances, overcome the obstacles to success, and use faith, meaningful friendships, and the love of grandparents to rise out of poverty and despair to become the next president of the United States. As he has said many times before, Senator Obama considers himself a product of the success of Brown v. Board of Education. He has written about the fact that if it weren’t for people like Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston that the doors would never have been open for him to attend college and law school, run for office, and then pursue the highest office in the nation.It is somewhat significant that the Democratic Party asked him to speak on this subject at the Democratic National Convention on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and that his vision of America is not one of Red States and Blue States but a true United States of America. I think that what Brown represented 50 years ago was the opportunity to compete on a level playing field, and Barack Obama symbolizes someone who has taken advantage of that level playing field and used it as a means, not only to seek the highest office, but to pursue a career as a decorated Harvard Law School graduate in public service.
In what way will Obama become a role model for minorities?
I think that Senator Obama has already convinced people to embrace the phrase, “Yes we can!” and the affirmative belief in the ability to compete and succeed. Giving children and parents a chance to compete in the field of ideas is a remarkable way of increasing their ability to successfully navigate the challenges of life. In order for a child to succeed, they need to have the right stimulus, support, and nurturing from the day of birth and through age five.
What sort of personal memories do you have of Barack and Michelle Obama ’88 from their time at HLS?
I met Michelle Obama first, when she arrived in 1985. It was my first year teaching here, and it was great to see her so excited about Harvard Law School. She had made a promise to her parents, who did not have the sort of education as she and her brother Craig. She promised to get the best out of her education at Princeton and Harvard and return to Chicago. That was a great sign to me, and that’s what she did. She spent time here not just learning all the critical elements of the law and classroom, but she was also a very diligent worker at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. I think her service to needy communities continues to influence her today.
Barack Obama arrived the year after she left, in the fall of ’88. What I found most impressive about him was his ability to navigate every environment. As professor Laurence Tribe admits, Barack was one of the most active and successful students in his constitutional law class and as a law clerk for him. He also was a very supportive and encouraging role model for other students. He and others like Hill Harper and Earl Martin Phalen would work hard in the classroom but also show an aggressive level of organization on the hardwood courts of Hemenway Gym playing intramural basketball.
You could see, even then, that they were comfortable being at Harvard Law School and committed to doing the important work to succeed. Yet they were each confident enough to make bold career decisions, entering politics for Barack, serving children for Earl Martin Phalen, and the performing arts for Hill Harper. They got the best that Harvard had to offer while they carved their own pathway to success and participation. Their mission 20 years ago is a great reminder now of the challenges we still face at Harvard Law School.