“In all my courses, I really have to teach the basic messages of my life… that the rewards, the satisfactions, are not in being partner or making a million dollars, but in recognizing evils, recognizing injustices, and standing up and speaking out about them even in absolutely losing situations where you know it's not going to bring about any change—that there are intangible rewards to the spirit that make that worthwhile.”
When Derrick Bell gave this interview to National Public Radio in 1992, he was in the middle of a very public unpaid leave of absence that ultimately led to separation from Harvard Law School to protest the school’s failure to hire a tenured Black woman to the faculty. In 1985, he had resigned his post as Dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Law when that school wouldn’t hire an Asian American woman professor; almost 30 years earlier, he resigned from the Department of Justice rather than give up his membership in the NAACP in order to keep his job. Throughout his long, storied career as a lawyer, law professor, and legal scholar until his death last October at age 80, Derrick Bell was well-known for his willingness to stand up and speak out about the injustices he saw around him, even when it cost him his own positions. His activism within and outside the “ivory tower” of academia changed the odds for the generations that followed in his footsteps and learned from his example. I was very pleased to have him as one of my superb supervising attorneys my first year out of law school when I joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund staff.
Derrick Bell was the oldest of four children, whose parents Derrick Sr., a mill worker and department store porter, and Mildred, a homemaker, taught them the need to stand up for what was right. Derrick was the first person in his family to go to college and the only Black student in his class at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. After law school he joined the Department of Justice in 1957, and was working in its Civil Rights Division when his superiors began pressuring him to drop his NAACP membership, spurring him to resign and return to Pittsburgh to take a job with the NAACP instead. His actions caught the attention of Thurgood Marshall, then head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who invited Derrick to come work with him in 1960. Derrick spent the next six years fighting Civil Rights Movement legal battles in the South, supervising more than 300 school desegregation cases, including a number I inherited in Mississippi after moving to practice law in that state in 1967.
After leaving the Legal Defense Fund, he served as deputy director of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare before beginning his career as a law professor at the University of Southern California Law School. He first joined Harvard Law School’s faculty in 1969, and in 1971 became its first Black tenured professor. Two years later he published Race, Racism and American Law, the casebook that colleagues and friends noted “would help define the focus of his scholarship for the next 38 years” and “heralded an emerging era in American legal studies, the academic study of race and the law.” For the rest of his professional life his scholarship highlighted the inequalities that continued to define American life and law. When he left Harvard Law School in 1980 to become the dean at Oregon Law School, he was one of the first Blacks to serve as dean at a predominantly White law school. But personal firsts were never the point for him. He returned to Harvard Law School after resigning from Oregon but quickly found he was led to take a principled stand again rather than keep quiet or be patient about the injustices he saw in the law school’s traditional hiring and tenure practices. Derrick remained dedicated to our collective good and to changing the odds for others his whole life.
After leaving Harvard Law School a second time Derrick went to New York University Law School which remained his academic home for the rest of his life. Always a beloved teacher and mentor, his classes and books like Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism brought his provocative, accessible style of thinking and writing about race in America and the law to a wide audience. He was a lantern for many and will live on in the many lives he touched and helped shape.