The University of Rhode Island kicked off Black History Month Tuesday night with a talk from Harvard law professor and mentor to President Obama, Charles Ogletree.
Ogletree is an expert on criminal and civil rights legal issues and taught both President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama when they were students at Harvard Law School. He is the first speaker of the newly enacted Marlen S. Bodden Annual Lecture Series in Africana Studies at URI, a series that Provost Don DeHayes said will continue well into the future.
“I can’t think of a more fitting way to kick off Black History Month at the University of Rhode Island,” said DeHayes.
Via video message, Bodden, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society in New York, said the fact that URI was able to book someone so well known in the area of equal rights is “something that we will talk about for a long, long time.”
“This is a dream come true for the Africana studies faculty,” said Dr. Winifred Brownell, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “We are on a quest to enhance the Africana studies program and provide wonderful opportunities for our students.”
After noting the full house at Tuesday’s event, including a mix of students, faculty and other members of the public, Dr. Vanessa Wynder Quainoo, director of Africana Studies, said, “Black History Month is for everybody. It is a university-wide celebration.”
During the hour-long talk, “Post-Racial America in the Age of Obama,” Ogletree discussed the progress America has made in embracing diversity since the 1960s, using URI’s Multicultural Center as an example.
Ogletree cited several past acts of violence against civil rights leaders and activists. Among them, he referred to Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow who delivered the invocation at President Obama’s 2013 inauguration.
The KKK gunned down Evers-Williams’ husband in his own driveway in 1962.
“I think about that,” Ogletree said of reflecting on the country’s progress. “I think about all those deaths.”
Ogletree spoke of Obama’s election to office in 2008, exactly 40 years after Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech addressing the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. As a student, Ogletree said President Obama “was really the smartest student at Harvard University.” He also said First Lady Michelle Obama “was one of the smartest people around.”
The Obamas and Ogletree remain close; President Obama refers to his former professor as “Tree.”
Ogletree recalls Obama always sitting in the front row. He said the future president made a habit of pointing out the validity of other students’ arguments.
“I said Barack, am I teaching this class or you? Give me a little respect here,” Ogletree said.
Even then, though, Ogletree did not expect his star student to end up in the White House.
“When I saw his talent and gifts and abilities, I was convinced he was going to be the best damn mayor in America,” he said. “Mayors are very important people who do a lot of important things we don’t know – amazing things on the local level. That’s what I thought he was going to be, a great mayor.”
In 1991, Ogletree says the president approached him with an ethical dilemma. He was torn between returning to public service in Chicago or moving on to Washington or New York. When he asked “Tree” if he could risk disappointing some people in order to take advantage of better career opportunities, Ogletree said, “I thought long and hard and I said, ‘Barack … yes you can.’”
“Barack hasn’t given me any credit at all,” Ogletree joked.
Ogletree stressed the importance of recognizing the progress America has made. Regardless of whether or not you support Obama, he said the president’s path to the White House has been noteworthy. Obama is an African American man born in 1961 with no father in his life, moving around the country with his single mother. Others in that situation might be “dead, on drugs or in jail,” he said.
“Barack Obama is at 1600 Penn Ave.”
In attendance at the evening’s event was URI sophomore and Johnston High School graduate Kody Fraser, who was impressed with Ogletree’s presentation.
“A lot of what he said went along with what I believe in and he talked like a real person, which was very appealing to me,” he said.
Fraser is studying film at URI and recorded the night’s event, which he said would be available on URI’s video network in a few weeks.
Upcoming Black History Month events at URI include an original poetry reading by Prof. Gitahi Gititi on Monday, Feb. 11 at 4 p.m. in Lippitt Auditorium fourth floor; a David E. Allen, Jazz & Gospel Guitarist concert on Sunday, Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. in the Multicultural Center; “Race, History and Education: Stand Up, Take a Seat and Own Your Spot” by Desne Crossley from Harvard Law School on Monday, Feb. 25 at 4 p.m. in Lippitt Auditorium fourth floor; a graduate student research panel on Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 3 p.m. in the Multicultural Center; and an undergraduate student research panel on Wednesday, Feb. 27 at 3 p.m. in the Multicultural Center. Throughout the month of February, an African American film will be shown each Wednesday in Lippitt 402 at 3 p.m. All events are free are open to the public.