Derrick A. Bell, Jr.
National Visionary

Born November 6, 1930 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Died October 5, 2011 in Manattan, New York

Civil Rights lawyer, author, and first African American professor tenured at Harvard Law School

Derrick Bell is a law professor and author who has achieved great success in his fields, but perhaps achieved even more by protesting for racial equality. A controversial figure, due to his vociferous protests against poor minority hiring records and his belief that the civil rights movement has failed, Bell has nonetheless been a prominent figure in the African American community. Born on November 6th, 1930, he has had a distinguished career in law and education for over four decades, and has been a tireless champion for equality and African American causes since his very early years.  

In 1971, Bell became the first tenured professor at Harvard of African-American descent, but left the position in 1992, after a two-year leave of absence that he took to protest the school's lack of African-American women in the faculty. Essentially, he had himself fired for purposely violating a rule limiting the amount of faculty leave time. His departure was not without fanfare, and was purposely public for years prior to the official end. Extraordinarily, Bell is in fact the only person of any race to voluntarily relinquish a tenured position at the prestigious institution. His protest garnered national news coverage and stirred the passions of many students, but failed to result in any formal policy change by Harvard administrators.  

In fact, that sort of story is typical of Derrick Bell, a man who refuses to bow to conformity and truly carries the courage of his convictions. In Oregon, where Bell had held the deanship at the Oregon Law School from 1980 (on leave from Harvard), a similar case cropped up in 1985. The administration there allegedly blocked the hiring of a minority candidate; an Asian-American woman who had been listed third on the list of candidates for the position. After the first two candidates--both white males--declined the position, the administration directed Bell to reopen the search rather than extend the offer to the qualified minority candidate. Bell then left his post in protest, going back to Harvard.  

Other demonstrations Bell has been involved in include the sit-in protest that he led from his Harvard office for five days, protesting for tenure for two black scholars who subscribed to a radical legal theory. He even joined the campaign to improve the lives of factory-farm-bred chickens, supporting the 'Kentucky Fried Cruelty' movement that campaigned against the famous fast-food establishment's methods of raising and slaughtering chickens.  

Jesse Jackson called Bell "one of our movement's giants, one of our true heroes." Beginning the early years of his law career, he was actually recruited out of law school by Thurgood Marshall himself.  

Prior to his years at Harvard, Bell served as the executive director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty at the University of Southern California Law School, counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and as deputy director of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.  

A prolific writer, Bell has authored seven books, generally on the legal struggles the African American community has made for equality throughout the years. Reading excerpts from the books, however, proves enlightening; he writes for a generalized audience, with a forceful yet clear style. Some have characterized his writing as akin to the sermons of the typical southern preacher. He has also been published in over a dozen legal journals of various universities and national magazines.  

The New York Times summed up the overarching theme in Bell's works thusly: "Racism is not a passing phase but a permanent feature of American life. Despite all the changes over the years, Bell maintains that blacks are worse off and more subjugated than at any time since slavery."  

His story, The Space Traders (from the book Faces at the Bottom of the Well) was made into an HBO movie, starring Robert Guillaume, in 1994. The story centers on the premise that aliens come to a ravaged earth, offering gold and technology to the people in exchange for their entire black population. The aliens will not say what they intend to do with the captured minorities; the text subtly explores interesting themes, such as how deep are our national ties and how serious is the distrust between races here?  

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
Many of his works have been used as university textbooks. His 1973 tome Race, Racism and American Law is still the standard in many law schools around the country. His Ethical Ambition is assigned as summer reading at Occidental College.  

A Pittsburgh native, Derrick Bell Jr. grew up the son of Derrick Sr., who left school after sixth grade and later ran a small trash-removal company. His mother, Ada Bell, was plucky and spirited. She instilled in young Derrick Jr. the tenet that action is always preferable to inaction. The family shared a small rowhouse; Derrick Jr. delivered papers as a young boy.  

Bell graduated from Schenley High School in Pennsylvania, and was offered a scholarship to Lincoln University which he was unable to make use of due to a lack of financial aid. As the first college-educated member of his family, he graduated Duquesne University and earned his A.B. in 1952. Having joined the ROTC in school, Bell was recruited to fight in Korea as part of the U.S. Air Force. He returned in 1954, and went to the University of Pittsburgh Law School with the goal of becoming a civil rights lawyer, earning his L.L.B. in an otherwise all-white class, in 1957. He went to work for the U.S. Justice Department, but left in 1959 when he refused to resign from the NAACP. He was then recruited to join that organization's Legal Defense Fund by Thurgood Marshall. Bell did a lot of work in Mississippi during this period, supervising the legal aspects of school desegregation cases, and other civil rights issues. He sometimes needed a guard to avoid being shot. Before going to work at Harvard, he also worked as deputy director of the Office for Civil Rights in the 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).  

Drawn by Ronnie Wallace
of J.C. Nalle Elementary
His wife, Jewel Hairston Bell, died of breast cancer in 1990. Scholarship awards were established as a memorial to Jewel, who, in the 1980's, was the Director of the Council of Minority Education, now known as the Office of Multicultural Academic Support, at the University of Oregon. Bell married Janet Dewart in 1992. He has three children from his first marriage in 1960; Derrick Albert III, Douglas Dubois, and Carter Robeson.  

Bell's scholarly writings have placed him in the forefront of Critical Race Theory (CRT), a new jurisprudence that explores the influences of society's racism and sexism in the law's policies and precedents. CRT is the theory that race lies at the center of American life. It challenges people to consider in all things the relationship that exists between race, the justice system, and society.


Derrick Bell's Wikipedia page

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