Bell, Derrick 1930–

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Derrick Bell 1930

Law professor, activist author

At a Glance

Led School Desegregation Cases

Fought Bigotry in Academia

Left Harvard over Faculty Complexion

Articulated Black Struggle Through Fictional Works

Selected writings


In the early 1950s, a young African American Air Force lieutenant named Derrick Bell was stationed in Louisiana, near a small town whose Presbyterian church was for whites only. A Presbyterian himself, Bell thought it unseemly that a house of worship would close its doors to believers of a different skin color. So one Sunday he put on his uniform and asked to attend the church service. The stunned parishioners reluctantly granted him a placea pew of his own in the balcony. But Bell did not stop there; he liked to sing in his hometown church in Pittsburgh, and he asked the minister if the choir would now make room for one more voice. Im not on some God-driven mission, Bell was quoted as saying in the New York Times. But it just seemed natural that if I wanted to sing in the choir, why shouldnt I sing in the choir?

Bell would never stop pushing the status quo, for he recognized confrontation as the best weapon against discrimination, be it based on race, gender, or ideology. The incident in the Louisiana church was an exceptional one for Bell: he fought for admission to a bigoted institution. Arguably the leading black legal scholar in the United States, Bell is better known for protesting institutions, particularly universities, by leaving them. While a generation of civil rights activists has preached integration, Bellas evidenced by his actions and writingshas grown disillusioned, painfully aware that the challenge of changing an inequitable system from within is a difficult one, often fraught with illusions of success.

Derrick Albert Bell, Jr., was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 6, 1930. From his father, Derrick, Sr., a sixth-grade drop-out who ran a small rubbish company, Bell learned that people of color ought to view the frequently hostile, white-dominated world with suspicion. When his son brought home a white school friend, the elder Bell made no secret that he didnt trust whites. The pluck of his mother, Ada Bell, cemented in young Derrick both the virtues of action and the hazards of inaction. At one point, she faced the familys parsimonious landlord, who stubbornly refused to fix the rotten back steps to the Bell rowhouse. My motherwent in to the rent office, waved money at the landlord and told him, I have the money, but you dont get it until you come fix the back steps so my kids dont fall, Bell told the Boston Globe. In short order, the landlord repaired the Bells steps, as well as those of neighboring houses.

Bell attended nearby Duquesne Universitythe first in his

At a Glance

Born Derrick Albert Bell, Jr., November 6, 1930, in Pittsburgh, PA; son of Derrick Albert and Ada Elizabeth (Childress) Bell; married Jewel Allison Hairston, 1960 (died 1990); married Janet Dewart (in public relations), 1992; children: Derrick Albert III, Douglas Dubois, Carter Robeson. Education : Duquesne university, A.B., 1952; University of Pittsburgh, LL.B.,1957.

Attorney, Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, 1957-59; executive secretary, Pittsburgh Branch of NAACP, 1959-60; first assistant counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 1960-66; deputy director, Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 1966-68; executive director, Western Center on Law and Poverty, University of Southern California, 1968-69; Harvard University, lecturer, 1969-71, professor of law, 1971-80 and 1986-90 (on extended leave, 1990-92); dean, University of Oregon Law School, 1981-85; professor at Stanford University, 1985-86; visiting professor at New York University School of Law, 1991; writer. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1952-54; served in Korea

Member: NAACP; member of the Bar of Washington, D.C., New York, Pennsylvania, California, the U.S. Supreme Court, several circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and various federal district courts.

Awards: Ford Foundation grants, 1972 and 1975; Society of American Law Schools Teacher of the Year award, 1985; several honorary degrees.

Addresses: Home 2 Washington Square Village, PH-C, New York, NY 10012-1732. OfficeNew York University School of Law, 40 Washington Square, New York, NY 10012.

family to pursue higher educationbecause he could live at home and work part-time for his father to help with the tuition. Stationed in Louisiana during the Korean War, Bell contributed to the burgeoning civil rights movement: he not only singlehandedly integrated the local Presbyterian church, but he also complained, albeit politely, about the practice of segregation on base buses outside the base perimeter. After the war, Bell attended the University of Pittsburgh Law School, where his unwavering drive to succeed, he later confessed, may have been perceived as arrogance. He raised his hand to answer every question in the classroom, and the other students characterized him as someone who knew everything and wanted others to be aware of it. Bell graduated fourth in an otherwise all-white class. His hope was to become a civil rights lawyer, even though in 1954, just as the Supreme Court forbade school segregation in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, a prominent black federal judge had told him that the fight against racism had already been won.

In 1957 Bell took a position with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, the only black among the one thousand lawyers, but he stayed only two years. The government had asked him to resign his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the premier black civil rights organization in the nation, because it was thought that his objectivity, and that of the department, might be compromised or called into question. He refused to give up his status as an NAACP member; instead, he quit his job with the U.S. government and within a year became the first assistant counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where the modern legal strategies to undo racist laws and institutions had been hatched.

Led School Desegregation Cases

Working under the countrys leading civil rights lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, Bell was assigned to Mississippi, the cradle of the deep South, where racism was at its most virulent and entrenched. Occasionally needing a guard so he wouldnt be gunned down, Bell at one time supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases and spearheaded the fight of an African American student, James Meredith, to secure admission to the University of Mississippi over the protests of Governor Ross Barnett. I learned a lot about evasiveness, and how racists could use a system to forestall equality, Bell was quoted as saying in the Boston Globe. I also learned a lot riding those dusty roads and walking into those sullen hostile courts in Jackson, Mississippi. It just seems that unless somethings pushed, unless you litigate, nothing happens.

Despite his numerous legal victories, Bell, around this time, began to formulate a brooding belief that later would consume his philosophical writings: that changes in the law, no matter how trailblazing and celebrated, cannot by themselves pierce the shield of racism.

In the mid-1960s, Bell was casting about for a teaching job, and, after a stint at the University of Southern California, hoped to find one at Harvard, the créme de la creme of legal education. The law school, in its 200 years, had never had a black professor, and Bells credentialshe had graduated from a regional law school and hadnt clerked for a Supreme Court justicewere regarded as thin. Thus, he was turned down in 1964 and again in 1966. But in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., black students at Harvard began calling for a minority faculty member in the school of law, and the administration yielded to their demands, hiring Bell in 1969. Bell clearly understood the social dynamic fueling his appointment. It became untenable for them to be an all-white institution, he explained in the New Republic. The status quo was better stabilized by moving in this direction a little bit.

Fought Bigotry in Academia

Bells civil rights crusades in the past had always been fought from the outsidefor example, as a Northern attorney riding into town to break up the rigid, segregationist laws of Mississippi. But at Harvard, an institution that symbolized achievement, he was an insider. He could not be cavalier in his call for change, particularly if it meant compromising the schools academic superiority, but he would not cower. Bell established a new course in civil rights law at Harvard, publishing a celebrated case book, Race, Racism and American Law, and producing a steady stream of law review articles. As a teacher, Bell became a mentor and role model to a generation of students of color, but he played a delicate balancing act at the university.

Bell became the first black tenured professor in Harvard Law Schools history and called on the university to improve its minority hiring record. But shortly after his tenure in 1971, a white university vice-president tried to purchase a house that Bell had been offered through a school program; Bell saw this as a blatant case of discrimination. This was only the first case in which Bells charges of racism would mobilize his supporters, who championed his efforts to stand up for principle, and anger his detractors, who accused him of being too quick with his allegations of bigotry.

In 1980 Bell left Harvard to become the dean of the University of Oregon Law School, becoming the first African American to ever head a non-black law school. But he grew bored with administrative details, and a delegation of professors, unimpressed with his stewardship, asked him to leave. He resigned several months later, charging the faculty with racism after it had denied an Asian American woman tenure, though she was next in line after two white candidates dropped out. (As a rebuttal, the faculty pointed out that it had recently granted tenure to a black woman who, by some accounts, boasted only marginal credentials.) Bell then taught at Stanford University for a year before returning to Harvard in 1986.

It did not take long for the activist in him to latch onto a political campaign. Bell staged a five-day sit-in in his Harvard office to protest the schools failure to grant tenure to two legal scholars, both of whom adhered to a controversial movement in legal philosophy that claims legal institutions are tools of an oppressive ruling class. The administration, not giving an inch, cited substandard scholarship and teaching on the part of the professors as the reason for the denial of tenure, but Bell called it an unambiguous attack on ideology. Bells sit-in, a throwback to the protests of the 1960s, galvanized student support but sharply divided the faculty. One colleague, who would later become dean of the school, reminded Bell that this was Harvard, not a lunch counter in the deep South. Bell answered that Harvard, much like the South, could use a wake-up call.

Left Harvard over Faculty Complexion

Having already generated much attention among progressive academics and activists, Bell reentered the debate over hiring practices at Harvard in 1990, when he vowed to take an unpaid leave of absence until the school appointed a black woman professor to its tenured faculty. At the time, of the universitys 60 tenured professors, only three were black and five were women. The school had never had a black woman on the tenured staff.

Students held vigils and protests in solidarity with the man who would sacrifice $120,000 in his fight to diversify the campus. Critics, including faculty members, called Bells methods counterproductive, and Harvard administration officials insisted they had already made enormous inroads in hiring: 45 percent of the faculty hired in the last decade was either female or black. They had been trying to recruit a black women, the officials said, but the pool of black women scholars was very small, and the interuniversity competition for the candidates was fierce. Besides, the black woman Bell wanted Harvard to hire was a visiting professor at the school, and visiting professors, according to a three-year-old rule, were ineligible for tenure.

To some observers, Bells lament about Harvard amounted to a call for the school to lower its academic qualifications in the quest to mold a diversified faculty on the campus. But Bell argued that critics of diversity invariably underplay the value of a faculty that is broadly reflective of society, and, more importantly, that the credentials demanded by institutions like Harvard perpetuate the domination of white, well-off, middle-aged men. As he commented in the Boston Globe, Lets look at a few qualifications beyond gradessay civil rights experiencethat might allow [a chance at a tenured teaching position for] more folks here who, like me, maybe didnt go to the best law school but instead have made a real difference in the world.

Articulated Black Struggle Through Fictional Works

Bells writings reflect the anger and disappointment of a man whose dramatic protest tactics, at least in recent years, have failed to bring about a desired change. The allegorical chronicles in 1987s And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice and his 1992 publication, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism attempt to expose the transparency of nominal, virtually meaningless civil rights advances. Racism is not a passing phase but a permanent feature of American life, the New York Times summarized. Despite all the change over the years, [Bell maintains that] blacks are worse off and more subjugated than at any time since slavery.

In a conclusion that is particularly grim for a crusading civil rights lawyer, Bell claims that legal victories are hollow if societys mind-set remains unchanged. He often refers to the Brown v. Board of Education case as an example, claiming that the 1954 school desegregation decision by the Supreme Court was neutered when whites began to abandon public schools and flee the cities. In general, Bell judges that civil rights laws and decisions are worthless because Americas white-dominated society continues to undermine black advancement while allowing racism to prevail.

One of the vignettes in Faces at the Bottom of the Well centers on a new black homeland for African Americans. Afrolantica, an island rising from the sea, is surrounded by air that is breathable only by people of color. Controversy arises in the story over whether blacks should move there to escape racial injustice. The Space Traders, another tale in the metaphorical collection, offers harsh insights into the perceived worth of cultural diversity in the United States: in the story, aliens use the African American population as a pawn in a scheme that would free the United States from its economic and environmental woes. Though critics generally appreciated the sober vision of race offered by Bell in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, some argued that the author minimizes real advances made in the struggle for civil rights over the past four decades.

In 1992, Bell, who had taken a visiting professorship at New York University, was formally removed from the Harvard faculty. He maintained a high profile in the news arena throughout the year, though, as he negotiated a deal with filmmakers Reginald and Warrington Hudlin (of House Party fame) to adapt The Space Traders into a motion picture. Bell also lent his legal expertise to a PBS-TV project on the Declaration of Independence.

In a speech to Harvard students quoted in the Boston Globe, Bell urged the future scholars and activists to continue the moral fights that he had championed, saying: Your faith in what you believe must be a living, working faith that draws you away from comfort and security, and toward risk through confrontation.

Selected writings

Race, Racism and American Law, Little, Brown, 1973.

Shades of Brown: New Perspectives on School Desegregation, Teachers College Press, 1980.

And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, Basic Books, 1987.

Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, Basic Books, 1992.



Bell, Derrick, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, Basic Books, 1992.


Boston Globe, March 25, 1992, p. 69; October 2, 1992, p. 22.

Emerge, July/August 1993, p. 12.

National Review, November 16, 1992, p. 58.

New Republic, May 21, 1990, p. 8; March 1, 1993, p. 17.

New York Times, May 21, 1990, p. A18; October 28, 1992, p. CI.

New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1987, p. 7; September 20, 1992, p. 7.

Time, May 7, 1990, p. 106; May 17, 1993, p. 13.

Isaac Rosen

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Bell, Derrick 1930–

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