Following the news that Merced’s very own civil rights icon, Charles Ogletree Jr., had passed away, friends, family and community members joined together last week for a remembrance ceremony on on the steps of the Merced County Superior Courthouse that bears his name.
The 70-year-old Ogletree died on Aug. 4 at his home in Maryland after a seven-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. As a litigator, Ogletree represented Anita Hill when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during the future U.S. Supreme Court justice’s Senate confirmation hearings in 1991. Other clients included Tupac Shakur and the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Ogletree also educated a new generation of Black lawyers that included U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
Friends at the courthouse shared stories of growing up with Ogletree; many espousing how easy he always was to talk to despite his stature across the nation.
“We all know that Charles Ogletree was a shining light for Merced,” said Allen Brooks, the president of the local NAACP chapter. “Even before I came to Merced, I knew who Charles Ogletree was from reading his books. It was an honor for me and some politicians in Merced to be able to put his name on this building because we felt it was important because he was such a shinning star. Not only in Merced, but across the nation with how many people he touched. … It’s not a black and white thing, it’s not a colored thing. He touched so many people black, white, and all other colors.”
Brooks went on to say that while the reason for the gathering on Thursday evening was a solemn one, the community was “going to make sure his name is alive in Merced forever based on this courthouse and some other things we are going to be doing.”
“When I got the news about Charles, I really broke down and I thought about us in the fields picking tomatoes, crushing grapes, peaches, raking almonds,” said Walter Smith, who now works with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, as well as being a member of the city’s Planning Commission. “Charles always had a book. At the swimming pool, he would be reading a book. From the south side of Merced all the way to the White House. When Obama said he was his mentor and he needed to talk to somebody, he called Charles, and that was the President.”
Local resident Reno Martinelli was a fellow classmate of Ogletree in Merced High’s Class of 1971, and echoed these sentiments by sharing a story.
“In those days we had recreational basketball where kids went and played in a league,” Martinelli recalled. “So Charles’ team was going to play our team, and so he and I got together, and I said: ‘Well we need to make a bet,’ and he said ‘Well what do you want to bet?’”
Martinelli explained that the loser would have to buy the other team’s lunch for the week. But Martinelli upped the stakes. Since Ogletree was the first black student body president at Merced High and made announcements each day, if Martinelli’s team won, he wanted Ogletree to say that his team was better than Ogletree’s team.
“We ended up beating him, and as a man of his word, he got up there the next day, and announced every one of our names, and he said that we were the best, and it was all fair and square. I knew as soon as that happened this was a man you could trust. This was a man that is going to go far, and this is a man that is going to go on to do great things.”
Tony Dossetti, a former Merced police chief and city councilman, also gave testimony.
“About his name being on this building, it’s just well deserved,” Dossetti said. “I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, when you hear Charles Ogletree’s name you know he’s from Merced and he made it all the way. Not only is Charles a shining light but the whole family is.”
Rounding out the slate of speakers was Charles Ogletree’s aunt, Nadine Washington, As she made her way to the front of the group, Washington noted that while she was aware of Ogletree’s achievements on a larger scale, she found it remarkable just how impactful his life was too all, both big and small.
“I’m just in awe of the things that I’ve learned here in the last few days,” she said. “Things that I didn’t really know for sure about that he had done that other people have told me, and how he had impressed other people who have been helped by him. It wasn’t just about black people or us, it was about everybody, and he wanted us to all be loving and as much as Christ-like as we can be as he was a Christian man.”
As Washington’s comments came to a close, those in attendance gathered together in prayer, with balloons in hand. Following the prayer, dozens of balloons were released in tandem to remember, recognize, and commemorate the legacy of Charles Ogletree and his impact on the lives of those around in him in the Merced area.
• A celebration of life for Charles Ogletree is scheduled to be live streamed from Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Maryland on Saturday, Aug. 19, starting at 8 a.m. PT (11 a.m. ET). Anita Hill will share remarks, along with many other dignitaries. The online link is at: live.ebenezerame.org/ You may have to create an account on the Ebenezer Church website to view.