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Derrick Bell 1930-2011

By on October 6, 2011

An American icon has died and he was not a computer entrepreneur. 

Derrick Bell died of  carcinoid cancer at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City on Wednesday. Mr. Bell, a great legal scholar, was the first tenured African American professor at Harvard Law School. He would later go on to be the first African American dean of a law school that is not historically black, the University of Oregon School of Law. But he was perhaps better known for resigning from prestigious jobs than for accepting them.

While many who achieve success are content to turn a blind eye to employer-based inequities or failings, Mr. Bell was not. He saw something, he said something. After a stint at Stanford and serving as dean in Oregon, he returned to Harvard in 1986, only to observe the shortcomings regarding tenure opportunities for qualified women candidates. Bell staged a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the school’s failure to grant tenure to two female legal scholars of color on staff. One gets amazing insight to the man and his convictions in his 2002 memoir, “Ethical Ambition.”

Harvard ultimately hired civil rights attorney and U.S. Assistant Attorney General nominee Lani Guinier shortly after Bell left. Since resigning from Harvard, he remained at NYU Law where he continued to write and lecture on issues of race and civil rights.

Professor Bell once said that in light of the often violent struggle that resulted from the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, things might have worked out better if the court had instead ordered that both races be provided with truly equivalent schools. Imagine that, equitable educational resources.

To appreciate the brilliant and socially conscious legal analysis of Mr. Bell you must reflect on his full body of legal scholarship that examined how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions. His 1973 book, “Race, Racism and American Law,” became a staple in law schools and is now in its sixth edition. He wrote several books and stories over his brilliant career. Derrick Bell, a man of integrity and courage, you will be missed brother.

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