In the ebb and flow of history, certain spirits anchor us in the cause for justice and uplift our aspirations. Attorney Charles Ogletree, affectionately known as ‘Tree’, was one such indomitable force, a beacon in our relentless struggle against white supremacy and for the rights of Black people.
The exact time and place of our first meeting escape me. It’s as if Tree and I have been intertwined in this journey for justice long before we became conscious of it. As a newly minted lawyer, I remember seeking a role at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where he held the reins. That particular venture might not have been successful, but our shared path was just beginning. His commitment to justice was palpable during the tumultuous Senate hearing for the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination. Tree was a pillar of strength, a bastion of dignity, as he represented Anita Hill.
Over the years, our orbits converged around pressing issues that plagued the African American community. The egregious mandatory minimum crack cocaine disparity was a grave injustice we jointly addressed. In 2006, the Justice Roundtable, under my initiative, took this disparity to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Ogletree, standing tall amongst other luminaries, brought international focus to this blight on the U.S. criminal justice system. The ripples from that hearing culminated in the monumental change in law in 2010.
Fast forward to 2008, during my leadership of the Open Society’s Behind the Cycle convening. When I needed an insightful moderator, who else could I have turned to but Tree? With the deftness only he could bring, he used the stories of fictional characters Jamal and Hope to unravel the intricate web of race, poverty, and incarceration.
Yet, it was not just contemporary struggles we rallied behind. The legacy of the Honorable Marcus Garvey beckoned our shared dedication. Tree joined me and other determined advocates in calling upon President Obama to enter a posthumous pardon for Garvey — a gesture to heal an old wound in Black history that remains today.
Tree’s fierce commitment to reparations shone in his involvement in the original Tulsa, OK reparations lawsuit. He recognized that justice for historical atrocities was as vital as addressing current disparities.
Tree mentored countless young minds, his guidance touching the lives of many. Among them were President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. But beyond these remarkable achievements, what truly defined him was his unwavering commitment to exposing the suffering of Black people and seeking to rectify wrongs.
Along those lines, the legal battle Grammy-nominated reggae artist Buju Banton was embroiled in likewise tied us together. As life’s unpredictable whirlwinds shifted the artist’s legal representation from Chokwe Lumumba to Tree and eventually to me in a bid for his clemency, I was reminded of the collective responsibility we shoulder as advocates.
I also cherished our informal encounters such as those at Martha’s Vineyard which he frequented. The last I recall was in August 2014. Tree’s ever-present warmth belied any hint of the ailment that was stealthily advancing. It pains me to admit that I might have missed signs of the illness slowly claiming him.
The sad news reached me that on Friday, August 4, Tree departed from this world at his home in Odenton, Md., at the age of 70. A loss profound and immeasurable.
Yet, as I recall our shared memories, the struggles, and victories, I am reminded that the legacy of stalwarts like Charles Ogletree will forever endure. They inspire us to continue the fight, to persist against all odds.
To the activists of today and tomorrow, remember the trailblazers like ‘Tree’ who paved the way with their unwavering commitment to justice. In their memory and through our collective efforts, let us ensure that the voices of the oppressed are always heard, that their struggles are not in vain, and that the beacon of justice and reparations shines ever brighter. In the spirit of Ogletree’s legacy, let us believe that with unity and determination, we can change narratives as we shape a just future.
Nkechi Taifa is a civil and human rights attorney, and author of the best-seller memoir, Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice, as well as the best-seller Reparations on Fire: How and Why it’s Spreading Across America.