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Ogletree highlights King weekend celebrations

Charles Ogletree, litigator and Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard University, was the featured speaker at an open dialogue at the Law School and at the annual Sunday Chapel service commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.

The dialogue, entitled "Assessing the dream: Where are we now?" included a speech by Ogletree and an ensuing question and answer period. In describing the status of race relations in America, Ogletree took a middle-of-the-road stance: "We've come a long way and we have a long way to go," he said.

However, he asserted that race issues have long played a role in society, far beyond what most people recognize. "Whatever the situation, race has always been a divisive issue," Ogletree said, noting at one point that even the audience was largely separated by race.

Ogletree discussed what he called "the history and reality" of race-related issues in America.

He spoke about black communities in the 1920s--products of segregation. During that period, he said, blacks experienced solid growth in local economies and businesses, including movie theaters, newspapers and hotels. A dollar would change hands 35 times before it left circulation in those communities, but today it hardly travels around more than once.

And even compared to their economic status during the post-civil war era, blacks do not fare much better today. "[Blacks held] 1 percent of the wealth in 1865, and 1 percent now," he said.

Ogletree also described the fate of a successful black community of the 1920s in Oklahoma. Greenwood, a section of Tulsa, Ok., was destroyed by a white mob in 1921 after an exaggerated and misrepresented incident occurred involving a black man and a white woman at a hotel. On Feb. 28, 2003, Ogletree was among a high-powered group of legal experts that filed the first federal lawsuit on behalf of survivors of the Tulsa race riot.

Ogletree explained that James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History John Hope Franklin, a supporter of the Tulsa case and a guest at Ogletree's discussion and Chapel service, was himself a direct descendent of the victims of the riot, as his family lost their business as a result of the riots.

The Tulsa case exemplifies Ogletree's continuing involvement in law issues with social causes, a passion of his he feels all members of the law community should exhibit. "A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite," he said.

Ogletree also discussed the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision that declared segregation of schools unconstitutional and opened the door to black students in what had formerly been white-only public schools. Ogletree noted, however, that relatively little progress has since been made.

"Fifty years after Brown, our schools are more segregated than they were then," Ogletree said. He added that although some have had success with integration, not enough has been done to solve the problem.

Ogletree also noted that although integration has occurred with blacks assimilating into the white community, the same can not be said the other way around. "There is a sense that it is only them coming to us, but not us coming to them," he said.

Ogletree also discussed the status of the reparations movement in America, not only with regard to recent issues such as the Tulsa race riot lawsuit but also for more deeply rooted issues like slavery. In describing how he felt reparations for slavery should proceed, Ogletree said an apology would be a good start.

He noted that former president Bill Clinton once said he would consider offering an apology to blacks for the treatment of their ancestors. However, it would only be the first step, Ogletree said, adding that in simply issuing an apology, it would only serve to heighten emotions with little hope of quelling them.

"You can't put this genie back in the bottle," he said.

Law professor Trina Jones, who specializes in race, law and civil procedure and who helped organize the discussion, said she thought the dialogue went "fantastically well," adding that she was disappointed to have to bring discussion to a close when audience members still had things to say.

Later Sunday, Ogletree again spoke to an eager crowd. During his speech in the Chapel, Ogletree noted that the biggest problem of today is the very problem of which W.E.B. DuBois spoke in 1903: the problem of the color line.

"We are still suffering from the travesty of injustice, from the power of racism," Ogletree said. He noted, however, that people are blind to the fact that the problem of racism still exists. "We don't know our house is on fire," he said.

Sunday's Chapel service also included speeches by a number of University administrators and students, as well as a representative of the mayor of Durham.

Cindy Yee contributed to this story.

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