On the eve of turning 20 I spent the night with legal giant Charles Ogletree. How is that for an attention grabbing lead!
Now back then, (did I mention it was 40 years ago?) Ogletree had yet to become the leading legal scholar of our time. In 1977 he was a second year Harvard law student. And it wasn't just me who spent the night with “Tree,” as he is affectionately called, but also my best girlfriend and about 50 other legal eagles. We were on the Supreme Court steps overnight to be in line the next morning – October 12th, to grab one of the coveted seats to hear oral arguments in Bakke v. California Board of Regents. Bakke was the definitive affirmative action case that we all knew would have an impact on our plans for law school, graduate school, and beyond. I remember the birthday for several reasons – I was turning 20 – an adult! I had never visited the Supreme Court before, but as a budding wanna-be-lawyer, was beyond excited to be involved in this participatory form of democracy. It felt like protest – a late 70’s way of taking a knee! And I was inspired by this Harvard law student who spoke with such calm fervor. Tree tapped into my passion for wanting to make a change – to impact the world. I saw the law as the mechanism to do that, and he was like a big brother telling Pat and myself that we were on the right path, and could accomplish whatever we set our sights on.
Over the years, Ogletree would go on to accomplish more than probably he could even imagine. Pat would become this incredible lawyer, human rights advocate and most recently candidate for DA on a platform of social justice. I became a lawyer and clerked for civil rights legend, Judge Damon J. Keith, before leaving the law to become a journalist.
I was reminded of this last week when I made the journey to Cambridge to see a moving tribute to Tree and his achievements over a life time of the law, and serving justice. People like Anita Hill, who Ogletree represented at the senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, accused of workplace sexual harassment. Twenty-six years later, and what’s changed – can you say Harvey Weinstein? TransAfrica’s Randall Robinson, and so many others paid moving tribute to this man who has always advocated, and brilliantly articulated for others. The superlatives were unending: "A great man who changed the world and made it a better place" "As kind, compassionate and inclusive as he is brilliant." “A man who fought for justice and changed the world.”
Of course as joyous and shining as the tributes were, it was clouded by the reality of what brought us together. The year before, Charles Ogletree announced he was battling Alzheimers. When he made the statement in the summer of 2016, he said he was dedicated to becoming a voice for the African-American community in this battle. He brought to the forefront, sobering statistics that African Americans are twice as likely to be hit by this disease as non-Hispanic whites, that we are not represented in clinical trials in proportion to our numbers in the population. As a society we have lived with Alzheimer's for more than a century, and yet we don't have a cure or anything substantive to offer a person who is diagnosed. By the time symptoms appear, the damaging proteins in the brain have already started their work, and it’s irreversible. Right now we all know someone who is caring for, or is touched by someone with Alzheimers. The burdens and challenges placed on caregivers are unimaginable. The long term costs to the healthcare system – unsustainable.
One of the benefits of heading into this “third chapter” of my life, is that after 30 years of work in two careers, I get to focus on those projects and missions that matter to me. Bringing attention, telling stories, marshaling resources around Alzheimers matters. So on this “milestone birthday,“ I’m giving myself the gift of action. It reminds me in a small way of the focus and commitment all those years ago on the Supreme Court steps with my best friend Pat, and the young man who told us we could make an impact.