By Nicole Ferrito
In honor of Black History Month, Harvard University professor Charles J. Ogletree invited students, faculty and staff to engaged in a discussion-lecture on the topic of race and justice in today’s society on Wednesday, Feb. 25.
A distinguished author, speaker and the Founding and Executive Director of Harvard Law School’s new Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Ogletree challenged the audience to think about issues of race and class and what actions the next generation will take in order to make positive changes.
Raised in a small town in Arkansas, Ogletree was the first in his family to finish high school. He discussed his love of books and said reading was his “sense of overcoming poverty.”
Ogletree moved on to attend Stanford University, a decision that made his family happy.
“Wow, everybody should go to college,” he thought. What was most important, Ogletree explained, was that “I’m not the last one.” He went on to say that he hoped to “keep the doors open for the generations to come behind (him).”
Ogletree explained his constant efforts to push for diversity. He began a diversity program at Stanford that aligned with his goal to ensure that the doors are open for other generations to attend college, no matter their race or background.
He discussed ways the United States has changed since the 1950s and ’60s, such as the nation’s first African American president. Ogletree was mentor to both Barack Obama and Michelle Obama throughout their time at Harvard and assisted Obama during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
“I was very pleased to be someone who was supporting him,” Ogletree said.
While he mentioned the progress America has made in terms of race and social justice, Ogletree discussed his disappointment in recent events — the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown — and the way in which they have been handled. He questioned what that tells us about race and class.
“In a sense, that makes us worry, ‘Is it really a problem?’ How are we going to address it?” Ogletree said. The problem will not go away, he explained. “It’s going to stay with us in a sort of memoriam,” Ogletree said.
He spoke of the importance of revitalizing cities like Chicago, Ill., and Ferguson, Mo.
Part of Ogletree’s disappointment stemmed from the lack of action taken by the community of Ferguson after Brown was shot. He said that African Americans make up almost 70 percent of Ferguson’s population.
“They, in a sense, control this area … if they choose to control it,” he said.
Ogletree explained that they have the power to make changes in their government, but only about 20 percent of those registered to vote did so in the last local election.
“You have to think about doing something instead of complaining about the way you’re treated,” he said. He spoke of influential figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks and the changes they fought for. He compared Martin and Brown to these past civil rights activists, saying “(they) gave their lives to make this a better society.”
Ogletree expressed that he was proud of our nation for starting “BlackLivesMatter” as a way to bring the conversation about race and social justice to the forefront.
“A whole new generation of activism is happening around the world,” he said.
One piece of advice Ogletree emphasized to the audience is the importance of getting involved in politics.
“What can you do?” he asked. “Run for office — as soon as you’re able and willing to make a difference.”
Each year, Ogletree gives out scholarships to the high school he attended, as well as other high schools around the country.
“It’s my way of giving back,” he said. “Now they are going back and giving back to the next generation.”
But, the scholarships don’t go to the best and brightest students, Ogletree said. He explained that those are the students who will already be receiving scholarships. “I’m thinking of people who come from a C- to a B+,” he said.
Ogletree elaborated that these are the students that have made progress so that they can attend college.
“He inspired me to vote, now,” said Harmony Kingsley, a freshman elementary education and English double major. She added that his speech made her think about “how anybody can make a difference. It doesn’t matter how old you are.”