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Merced native and legal icon honored with courthouse naming
Charles Ogletree
The Merced County Superior Courthouse building was rechristened in honor of Charles James Ogletree Jr. (Photo contributed).

A tireless social-justice advocate, outstanding legal scholar and proud son of Merced was honored Friday when the Merced County Superior Courthouse building was rechristened the Charles James Ogletree Jr. Courthouse.

“We’re here to acknowledge the exemplary life lived by Dr. Ogletree,” said former Assemblymember Adam Gray, who authored the legislation required to bestow the honor.

“Charles Ogletree is a giant in the legal community,” said Gray. “He has made incredible contributions to the advancement of racial justice in America. There is no one who is more deserving to have a courthouse named in his honor – in Merced or anywhere else. We’re proud of what he has achieved.”

Also central to the naming effort was the Merced Chapter of the NAACP.

Ogletree was born in Merced, becoming Merced High School senior class president in 1970 before matriculating to Stanford University then Harvard Law.

Ogletree worked as a public defender in Washington, D.C., then went on to represent musician Tupac Shakur and counsel law professor Anita Hill during the controversial confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991.

In 2004, Ogletree helped focus national attention on the destruction of a thriving Black community in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921. A white mob, backed by some elements of law enforcement, destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood District, burning dozens of buildings and looting city blocks. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Black residents were killed in the massacre. Ogletree filed a lawsuit on behalf of the survivors and their descendants. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but the national attention of a long-buried incident resulted in books, documentaries and coverage by every national media outlet.

Ogletree returned to Harvard as a distinguished professor where he mentored the former Michelle Robinson, now Obama, then two years later her husband, Barack.

Ogletree has authored six books, including “All Deliberate Speed” (2004), “The Presumption of Guilt” (2010), and “Life Without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty?” (2012).

Ogletree now suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease and could not attend the ceremony. But his siblings were there, and his brother Richard spoke.

“This is something, if it wasn’t for Alzheimer’s, this was – this is something he would be most proud of because it is hometown recognition,” said Richard Ogletree.

Among those also honoring Ogletree on Friday was U.S. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, through a video message. He called Ogletree a “force of nature” and “dynamic public servant who has advanced the law for social justice, civil rights, civil liberties and tolerance in our society.”

Others attending the ceremony included judges Mark Bacciarini, Brian McCabe and Donald Proietti, UC Merced Chancellor Juan Sanchez Munoz, Merced College President Chris Vitelli and Esmeralda Soria, who now represents most of Merced County in the Assembly.

It was not the first time Merced has honored Ogletree. In 2006, he was awarded the inaugural Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance – which in subsequent years was given to President Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama and Anita Hill among others.

County courthouses are property of the State of California, and their naming is governed by strict rules, including that those honored be dead. Gray’s legislation secured the necessary waivers.

That effort, said Brooks, was important: “Adam Gray’s team, the NAACP team, we got together and made sure that this happened. We’re actually here making history in our own right.”