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Monday, June 24, 2024

Harvard professor Charles Ogletree Jr. (Photo: Professor Charles Ogletree via Facebook)

In the winter of 1996, I received a call from professor Charles Ogletree Jr. It was not totally unusual to field a call from the professor, as I had received them periodically from time to time, simply inquiring as to how I was adjusting to college and encouraging me to stop by his office when I returned home. This call was slightly different than the others, as he spoke to the budding activist in me and was genuinely curious about my experiences as a black student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, where I’d graduated two and half years earlier. Our conversation was relatively brief, no more than 15 minutes; at that time in my life, talking to anyone besides a college coed for longer than 15 minutes was blasphemous. But during that short exchange professor Ogletree helped me formulate my disjointed and ambitious strategy to empower people who were embroiled in the world of systemic and political harm. Our relationship continued long past that call in ’96, years throughout which he assisted me in more ways than one could ever imagine or truly honor.

I can vividly remember a time we met for lunch, and it was like he could transpose the moment we are in that day and are in today, as we talked in detail about the state of Cambridge Public Schools. We brainstormed ways to alchemize school districts, mapping out ways to support students who were being displaced by the very academic institution that is charged to support them in becoming their greatest selves. Well-intentioned districts such as Cambridge continue to miss the collective mark despite their lofty charge, while repeatedly causing harm that has eroded the faith of many black, brown and working-class white folks.

In the days since professor Ogletree’s death on Aug. 4 from Alzheimer’s, there were a series of remembrances about the folks he mentored and acted. Each of us should be mindful that we are better because of our proximity to not only the professor, but to Mrs. Pamela Ogletree; his daughter Rashida Ogletree-George; and to his son – my high school classmate Charles “Chuck” Ogletree III.

Compassionate and forward-minded leaders put you in position and place you in rooms that will help you to dream beyond what you’ve ever seen. It was through my relationship with professor Ogletree that I could learn from Angela Davis; debate with Cornel West; and listen to Harry Belafonte, to name a few, but it was through what I experienced via our conversations together that he unearthed in me the value of understanding the local landscape and fighting for those who struggled with advocating for themselves. In a world where so many among us are hyper-competitive, he made it his business to know all folks, not just those in power. Make no mistake, he understood why it is so critical to leverage those in power to maximize the breadth of opportunities for each of us. Here is a man who helped to draft the new South African constitution yet was grounded enough to call a kid from The Port to read a portion of one of his books simply to see if the language would resonate with my generation.

While I am saddened for this world at the loss of a giant, I have found comfort in the fact that an organization I co-founded, the My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge Task Force, has partnered with Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School to provide robust internships and pathways for high school students to examine, to conduct research and to co-write white papers regarding the dreadful disease of Alzheimer’s. This effort, along with the blessing of the Ogletree family to name a forthcoming Academy for Black and Brown Boys in honor of the great professor, has provided some solace. I have no doubt that his legacy will remain as strong as the steady vibrancy of his work. Local activists such as Kathy Ann Reddick, the 1995–2015 president of the NAACP Cambridge branch, will remind us that professor Ogletree’s work must continue. He would only expect great things — and he left us a blueprint for excellence in the frameworks of the Criminal Justice Institute Roxbury District Court, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Racial Injustice at Harvard and Cambridge’s Benjamin Banneker Charter School.

As the community prepares for a spirited electoral season, one that will certainly be rife with incumbents and hopefuls making big promises, I will be cognizant of the talking-point tightrope politicians will walk through the tough conversations that professor Ogletree pushed us to have – even within our self-proclaimed and widely advertised liberal bastion of Cambridge. He proposed action to increase freedom for the “bottom-stuck.” Are we prepared to be inspired by his work on reparations and disparities in the penal system? His philosophies are illuminated by the fact that arrests in Cambridge have gone down, but arrests among people of color have risen. Are we ready to create a School Committee courageous enough to push the district to move with “deliberate speed” that prepares all its children?

I will always remember professor Ogletree as an intellectual who solved problems, not an intellectual who pontificated about them for public adulation. He forged institutions with a mindset that movements in courts and communities are above banter and arguments in the media. While Aug. 4 was a sad day, it is equally a call of action for all of us to remember his urging: whenever we make it over the threshold, we must reach back and help others. During his 2011 Morehouse College Commencement address, he left us with a mantle to “lift every voice, not just those around you. The faceless, the powerless, the people that can’t make it. Stand up and sacrifice for those who follow.” This is the way I will march on with the deepest respect and gratitude for a great man who left an indelible mark on my life and my mission.


Tony Clark is the co-founder and co-president of the My Brother’s Keeper, Cambridge, Task Force.