October 06, 2011
Derrick Bell, a distinguished legal scholar, prolific writer and tireless champion for equality, died Wednesday, Oct. 5. Over the course of his five-decade career, he worked to expose the persistence of racism and challenged his students, readers and critics with his uncompromising candor and progressive views.
HLS Dean Martha Minow said: “From his work on the front-lines of legal argument in the civil rights movement to his pathbreaking teaching and scholarship on civil rights and racial justice issues, Professor Derrick Bell inspired and challenged generations of colleagues and students with imagination, passion, and courage.”
Bell joined the Harvard Law School faculty as a lecturer in 1969 and in 1971 became its first tenured African-American professor. He gave up his professorship in 1992 to protest the school’s hiring practices, specifically the lack of women of color on the faculty. His protest garnered national news coverage and stirred the passions of many students.
HLS Professor Lani Guinier, who was appointed the first female African-American professor at Harvard Law School in 1998, told the New York Times, Bell “set the agenda in many ways for scholarship on race in the academy, not just the legal academy.” She added: “Most people think of iconoclasts as lone rangers. But Derrick was both an iconoclast and a community builder. When he was opening up this path, it was not just for him. It was for all those who he knew would follow into the legal academy.”
In 1980, Bell was appointed dean of the University of Oregon School of Law. He resigned in protest five years later after an Asian woman was denied tenure. He returned to Harvard in 1986 and led a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the school’s failure to grant tenure to two professors whose work involved critical race theory — a body of legal scholarship that explored how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even those intended to lessen the effects of past injustice.
In 1990, Bell was appointed as a full-time Visiting Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, a position which he held permanently.
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1957, Bell worked as a staff attorney at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. He resigned in protest in 1959 when the department asked him to withdraw his membership from the NAACP. He became an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and from 1960 to 1966 he administered 300 desegregation cases regarding schools and restaurant chains in the South. He later served as deputy director of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (1966) and as executive director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty at the University of Southern California Law School (1968).
A prolific writer on current issues, most notably civil rights in the United States, he was widely published in professional journals, and national magazines and newspapers. He was the author of many books, including a leading textbook, “Race, Racism and American Law,” originally published in 1973 and “Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform.” He also wrote two autobiographical works: “Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protestor” (1996) and “Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth” (2002).
He was also known for the series of allegorical stories featuring his fictional heroine, Geneva Crenshaw. One of his stories, The Space Traders, from the book “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,” was made into an HBO movie, starring Robert Guillaume, in 1994.
He earned an A.B. from Duquesne University in 1952 and an LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh Law School. He served in the U.S. Air Force, and was stationed in Korea for a year.
He is survived by his wife, Janet Dewart Bell, and his three sons, Derrick Albert Bell III, Douglas Dubois Bell and Carter Robeson Bell, from his first marriage to the late Jewel Hairston Bell. He also leaves two sisters, Janet Bell of Pittsburgh and Constance Bell of Akron, Ohio; and a brother, Charles Bell of New York. Details regarding a memorial service will be posted here as they become available.