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Law School Professor Urges Renewed Battle for Civil Rights

Law professor tells crowd to "stop being calm, stop being cute"

By Michael M. Grynbaum, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Law School (HLS) Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree delivered a fiery call for a renewed civil rights movement to the Cambridge NAACP’s annual breakfast commemorating the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King on Saturday.

With the fervor of a preacher rallying his congregation, Ogletree’s speech inspired the occasional “amen” from the crowd of 250 as he said that the Bush administration has ignored the needs of African-Americans, cited the eventual failure of many 1960s civil rights initiatives and warned that Dr. King’s battles had “just begun.”

“We have to stop being comfortable, stop being calm, stop being cute,” Ogletree said. “If we want to remember [Dr. King’s] legacy we can’t have a breakfast; we have to commit to a struggle that won’t stop until victory is won.”

“Having Our Say” was the title of the breakfast, held at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Cambridge, and Ogletree encouraged the crowd to rekindle an era of civic activism.

But Ogletree saved his strongest words for President Bush.

“On your way to the moon [Mr. President], you think you may have the time to stop by Africa?” Ogletree asked, referring to the president’s recently-announced plans to expand American space exploration. “On your way to the moon, you think you may have time to stop by South Central Los Angeles? You talk about building Iraq. How about building America’s ghettos?”

Last Thursday, Bush was booed by several hundred protesters while laying a wreath on Dr. King’s grave in Atlanta.

Ogletree recalled this incident and also chastised the president for the brief he filed against affirmative action in January 2002.

The Cambridge NAACP, the Cambridge branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also presented Mayor Michael A. Sullivan with its Martin Luther King, Jr., Education Award.

The award recognized the mayor’s work as the chair of the school committee, according to NAACP chapter vice president Josephine Bartie.

“Can everybody see me over this?” the short mayor joked as he stepped up to the lectern.

Besides honoring local activists and civic leaders, this year’s breakfast also marked the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that struck down racial segregation in public schools.

While the decision is remembered as a victory for civil rights groups, Ogletree was dubious of its legacy.

“They let the entire system off the hook when they said, ‘We’ll do it with all deliberate speed,’” Ogletree said, referring to a controversial clause in the decision. “That means slow.”

“How bad is it? In 2004, our communities in many respects are more segregated now than in 1954. We can’t blame everybody but ourselves. It is time for us to have our say in 2004,” Ogletree said.

Religion was a strong theme of the breakfast, which featured an invocation and benediction from the Rev. Howard A. McLendon of the Mass. Ave Baptist Church in Cambridge.

The crowd, which included several Cambridge city councillors and state politicians, was dressed in a mix of conventional formal wear and traditional African clothing.

Proceeds from the $45-a-plate breakfast were donated to the Cambridge NAACP’s scholarship fund, which provides financial assistance to college students who graduated from the Cambridge public school system, according to Bartie.

—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at grynbaum@fas.harvard.edu.

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