Bell, Derrick Albert, Jr.

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Bell, Derrick Albert, Jr.

Derrick Albert Bell Jr. was the first tenured black law professor at Harvard Law School, a renegade Civil Rights scholar and proponent and a prolific author of civil rights-related works, including the critically acclaimed books And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1987) and Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992).

Bell was born November 6, 1930, in Pittsburgh. The seeds of his views on racial injustice—and his response to racial bigotry and prejudice—were sown in the Great Depression. When he was five years old, he watched his mother, Ada Elizabeth Bell, demand that the family's landlord fix the rotted stairs behind their apartment. His mother finally told the landlord, who had ignored her requests for months, that she refused to pay the rent unless he fixed the stairs. A few days later, the landlord fixed their steps—and all the other broken steps on their road. Bell's interpretation of the event? "Good things happen when you push." Bell has also said that he carries his father's "dignified suspicion" of whites in hard-time Pittsburgh and his mother's homespun conception of a rights-based economy of self-respecting agitation.

The eldest of four children, Bell earned a bachelor of arts degree and an Air Force commission when he graduated from Duquesne University in 1952, and then he served in the Korean War. While in the Air Force, Bell made his first discreet push for racial equality: he complained to the commanding officer at a base in Louisiana about black soldiers having to sit in the back of the bus whenever they left base. After his military stint, he attended the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, lived at home, and kept the books for his father, Derrick Bell Sr., who ran a trash-collection business. Bell was elected as the associate editor-in-chief for the Pittsburgh Law Review, a prestigious position for a student to hold at any law school. He competed strenuously in law school and has admitted to being "a little obnoxious" in his attempt to succeed in an otherwise all-white class: in the yearbook, underneath his picture, the following description is given: "Knows everything and wants others to know he knows everything."

After graduating fourth in his class and being admitted to the District of Columbia bar in 1957, Bell applied to a top local law firm, which had asked the law school to send over its best students. "When I walked in, there were all these gasps," he said. "It was like a line of heart attacks down the hall." Bell did not get the job, but he did go on to become one of only three black attorneys at the U.S. department of justice after being assigned to the Civil Rights Division. His first professional act of defiance came in 1959, when he quit his job at the Justice Department in protest after being told to give up his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which the Justice Department considered a conflict of interest.

"Civil rights campaigns aimed at changing the rules without affecting the underlying status quo."
—Derrick Bell Jr.

Bell returned to Pittsburgh and although he had passed the Pennsylvania bar, he accepted the position of executive secretary of the NAACP's Pittsburgh branch. A year later he was recruited by its then-director, Thurgood Marshall, to join the staff of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to champion the cause of racial equality. After starting as the executive secretary for the Pittsburgh branch of the Defense Fund, Bell was promoted to first assistant counsel at the New York City branch, where he remained from 1960 to 1966. While working as a civil rights lawyer, he confronted many difficult people and situations—from judges predisposed to ruling against his black clients to segregated public buildings. During this time, Bell spent a night in jail in Mississippi for refusing to leave a train station's "whites-only" waiting room. He oversaw 300 School Desegregation cases and played a central role in getting james meredith, a black student, admitted to the all-white University of Mississippi, despite the resistance of Governor Ross Barnett. "Down South, I learned a lot…. It just seems that unless something's pushed, unless you litigate or protest, nothing happens," Bell said.

In 1966 Bell was admitted to the New York bar. From 1966 to 1968, he served as deputy director of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's Office for Civil Rights. In 1968 he moved to California and became the executive director of the Western Center of Law and Poverty, at the University of Southern California (USC). He passed the California bar in 1969 and taught law as an adjunct professor at USC's law center.

After the 1968 assassination of Dr. martin luther king jr. and inner-city riots, Bell received a number of offers to teach law, including one from Harvard. He accepted Harvard's offer and lectured there from 1969 to 1971, after telling the school that he was willing to be the first black there but not the last. In 1971, after Bell challenged the school to vote on his tenure, he became the law school's first tenured African American faculty member, a position he kept until December 1980. During his tenure, he wrote several articles and the text, Race, Racism and American Law (1973; 4th ed. in 2000).

Bell left Harvard in January 1981 to become a professor and the dean of the University of Oregon School of Law. He resigned from there in 1985, when the school refused to back his decision to offer a tenure-line position to an Asian American woman. The same year, he published the foreword in the Harvard Law Review, "The Civil Rights Chronicles." In 1996 the Society of American Law Teachers named him Teacher of the Year.

After leaving Oregon, Bell spent a semester the next year as a visiting professor at Stanford Law School, where, once again, he found himself mired in controversy—this time for his revisionist teaching of Constitutional Law. Some Stanford law students, who disliked Bell's interpretation of the Constitution, pressured the faculty into offering supplemental lectures from other professors. Shortly before the first of these additional lectures, Stanford's Black Law Student Association staged a protest, and the administration made a formal apology to Bell.

In the fall of 1986 Bell returned to Harvard to teach law. He soon was caught up—yet again—in racial discord. During commencement exercises in May of 1987, he staged a four-day round-the-clock sit-in inside his office to protest the denial of tenure to two members of the Critical Legal Studies movement, a leftist movement that challenges the basic tenets of Legal Education and scholarship. Also in 1987, Bell's alter ego, Geneva Crenshaw, who had first come to life in his Harvard Law School foreword, became the heroine in the pages of his book And We Are Not Saved. At the fulcrum of this collection of ten allegorical tales was the contention that racism is an immutable, permanent problem in U.S. society; Bell used Socratic dialogues between himself, as narrator, and Crenshaw, a black civil rights lawyer, to measure the "progress" of blacks since brown v. board of education, 349 U.S. 294, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083 (1955). Further, in 1987, Bell spoke out in support of Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose minority report that year had criticized the Constitution and blacks' "token presence" in the bicentennial celebrations: "We need … more candor about why the Constitution was written the way it was and what still needs to be done to insure individual rights," said Bell.

The following year, Bell wrote Civil Rights in Two Thousand Four: Where Will We Be? Also in 1988, he wrote a scathing indictment of Harvard Law's Affirmative Action performance; his article, published in 1989 by the Michigan Law Review, gave a fictional account of how Harvard came to hire more minorities only after the school's black faculty and the university president were killed in a terrorist bombing. Bell was privately criticized for having dared to paint a grisly portrait of the president of Harvard being blown to pieces. Robert C. Clark, a professor at Harvard and a future dean of the school, objected to Bell's many protests, saying, "This is a university, not a lunch counter in the Deep South." "In its own way, this law school is as much in need of reform as the lunch counters of the South, although in a far more subtle way," said Bell. Clark later apologized and spoke of sharing Bell's goal of building a diverse faculty.

Bell's dissension at Harvard came to a head in the spring of 1990, when Professor Regina Austin was denied tenure at the law school. In early April, students on 50 law campuses boycotted classes in a call for more minority teachers; later that month, Bell announced that he would step down—and forgo his $100,000 annual salary—until a black or other minority woman was considered for tenure. Of the school's sixty-five full-time professors at the time, five were white women and five were black men.

Bell's position was that qualified persons of color were not getting through an obsolete and irrelevant tenure-granting process, despite their qualifications and the valuable perspective they could provide law students. He said the traditional checklist for tenure—Was the candidate at the top of his or her law class? an editor on law review? someone with prestigious clerkships?—must be made more flexible when considering minority professors. "The traditional way of doing legal scholarship doesn't do justice to our experience," said Bell. "But minorities who are trying to blaze new trails in legal academia are meeting opposition and silencing." Comparing Bell to Rosa Parks—a black woman who refused to sit in the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955—the Reverend jesse jackson offered in May 1990 to mediate between the school and Bell. Harvard turned down the offer.

Many observers marveled at the public attention attracted by Bell's dramatic move at Harvard—among them, Richard H. Chused, professor of the Georgetown University Law Center, who in 1989 published an empirical study demonstrating the lack of diversity within law school faculties, and Nathaniel R. Jones, judge for the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and a part-time Harvard Law instructor. Not all of Bell's colleagues agreed with this form of protest, however. Professor Charles Fried, of Harvard Law, called Bell "off his head," and others termed him "counterproductive." Dean Clark continued to assert that Harvard should make appointments based on merits and not because of protests.

Bell's struggle with Harvard may not have been entirely for naught: in September 1992, Dean Clark acknowledged bitter divisions within the school and created a working group of faculty, students, and staff to improve the level of civility and community and to foster discussion of issues that had shaken the institution. And in June 1993, Harvard granted tenure to its seventh black law professor, Charles Ogletree.

In the early 2000s, Bell was continued to be a prolific writer. In addition to publishing other books such as Confronting Authority: Reflections of An Ardent Protestor (1996), Constitutional Conflicts (1997), Afrolantica Legacies (1998), and Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth (2002), he is also the author of a foreword in Critical Race Feminism: A Reader. Bell's articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor as well as Essence, and Mother Jones magazine.

Since 1991 Bell has been a visiting professor at New York University Law School. He has written commentary for a number of legal journals including those of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and the University of Michigan. Bell continues to lecture around the country and to comment on legal issues on radio and television programs. He anticipated that New York University Press would publish his book critiquing the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education in early 2004.

Further readings

"Action of Harvard's Prof. Bell Focuses Attention on Diversity." 1990. National Law Journal (May 7).

Association of American Law Schools. 1993. Directory of Law Teachers. Association of American Law Schools.

"Bell, Harvard Agree to Disagree on His Departure." 1992. National Law Journal (July 20).

"Bell Still Teaching." 1990. National Law Journal (November 12).

"Bell Wants Harvard." 1992. National Law Journal (March 23).

Carter, Stephen L. 1991. Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. New York: Basic Books.

Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. 1999. Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

Essed, Philomena, and Davie Goldberg. 2001 ed. Race Critical Theories. New York: Blackwell.

"In Move to NYU, Derrick Bell Cites Friendship with Its Dean." 1991. National Law Journal (April 22).

"Prof. Moves." 1991. National Law Journal (April 15).

Cross-references

Civil Rights; Discrimination; Legal Education.