Derrick Bell Law Rights Advocate  Dies at 80

Derrick Bell Law Rights Advocate  Dies at 80


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



it was U.S. cold war interests that necessitated the elimination of legal segregation

rather than purported concern with quality education for black children.

In other words, when the interests of blacks converge with the interests of whites,

blacks are more likely to have their needs addressed; otherwise they are not.



Books by Derrick Bell

Faces at the Bottom of the Well / Silent Covenants  / Race, Racism and American Law  / Ethical Ambition / Gospel Choirs

Confronting Authority / Afrolantica Legacies / And we Are Not Saved

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Derrick Bell Law Professor and Rights Advocate Dies at 80

Excerpts by Fred A. Bernstein


6 October  2011

Derrick Bell, a legal scholar who saw persistent racism in America and sought to expose it through books, articles and provocative career moves—he gave up a Harvard Law School professorship to protest the school’s hiring practices—died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 80 and lived on the Upper West Side. The cause was carcinoid cancer, his wife, Janet Dewart Bell, said.

Mr. Bell was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School and later the first black dean of a law school that was not historically black. But he was perhaps better known for resigning from prestigious jobs than for accepting them.  While he was working at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in his 20s, his superiors told him to give up his membership in the N.A.A.C.P., believing it posed a conflict of interest. Instead he quit the department, ignoring the advice of friends to try to change it from within.

Thirty years later, when he left Harvard Law School, he rejected similar advice. At the time, he said, his first wife, Jewel Hairston Bell, had asked him, “Why does it always have to be you?” The question trailed him afterward, he wrote in a 2002 memoir, “Ethical Ambition,” as did another posed by unsympathetic colleagues: “Who do you think you are?”Professor Bell, soft-spoken and erudite, was “not confrontational by nature,” he wrote. But he attacked both conservative and liberal beliefs. In 1992, he told The New York Times that black Americans were more subjugated than at any time since slavery. And he wrote 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.

He was a pioneer of critical race theory—a body of legal scholarship that explored how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even many of those intended to redress past injustices. His 1973 book, Race, Racism and American Law, became a staple in law schools and is now in its sixth edition. Mr. Bell “set the agenda in many ways for scholarship on race in the academy, not just the legal academy,” said Lani Guinier, the first black woman hired to join Harvard Law School’s tenured faculty, in an interview on Wednesday. . . .

Professor Bell’s core beliefs included what he called “the interest convergence dilemma”—the idea that whites would not support efforts to improve the position of blacks unless it was in their interest. Asked how the status of blacks could be improved, he said he generally supported civil rights litigation, but cautioned that even favorable rulings would probably yield disappointing results and that it was best to be prepared for that.

Much of Professor Bell’s scholarship rejected dry legal analysis in favor of stories. In books and law review articles, he presented parables and allegories about race relations, then debated their meaning with a fictional alter ego, a professor named Geneva Crenshaw, who forced him to confront the truth about racism in America.

One his best-known parables is “The Space Traders,” which appeared in his 1992 book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. In the story, as Professor Bell later described it, creatures from another planet offer the United States “enough gold to retire the national debt, a magic chemical that will cleanse America’s polluted skies and waters, and a limitless source of safe energy to replace our dwindling reserves.” In exchange, the creatures ask for only one thing: America’s black population, which would be sent to outer space. The white population accepts the offer by an overwhelming margin. (In 1994 the story was adapted as one of three segments in a television movie titled “Cosmic Slop.”) . . .

Professor Bell’s narrative technique nonetheless became an accepted mode of legal scholarship, giving female, Latino and gay scholars a new way to introduce their experiences into legal discourse. Reviewing “Faces at the Bottom of the Well” in The New York Times, the Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse wrote: “The stories challenge old assumptions and then linger in the mind in a way that a more conventionally scholarly treatment of the same themes would be unlikely to do.”

Source: NYTimes

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Derrick Albert Bell, Jr. was born on November 6, 1930 in Pittsburgh, the eldest of four children. At an early age, Derrick’s parents, Ada Elizabeth Childress Bell, a homemaker, and Derrick A. Bell, Sr., a millworker and department store porter, instilled in him a serious work ethic and the drive to confront authority.

Derrick was the first person in his family to go to college. He attended Duquesne University, where he earned an undergraduate degree and served in the school ROTC. He then served as a lieutenant in the United States Air Force, where he was stationed in Korea and Louisiana.

After his military service, Derrick entered law school at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, where he was the only black student in his class of 140, and only one of three black students in the school. He spoke up in class, earned good grades and was elected an associate editor-in-chief of the Law Review.

Upon graduation in 1957, Derrick joined the newly formed Department of Justice in the Honor Graduate Recruitment Program and then was transferred to the Civil Rights Division a year later because of his interests in racial issues. His tenure there proved short because his superiors expressed concern over his two dollar membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After Derrick’s refusal to surrender his NAACP membership, senior officials physically moved Derrick’s desk into the Department’s hallway and reduced the docket of cases on which he was assigned. In 1959, after repeated requests that Derrick relinquish his NAACP membership, Derrick instead resigned his position.

Returning to Pittsburgh, Derrick took a job with the local chapter of the NAACP. While there in 1960, Derrick married Jewel Hairston, who was also a civil rights activist and educator. They were married until Jewel’s death in 1990. Jewel and Derrick had three sons: Derrick III, Douglass Dubois, and Carter Robeson. Douglass was named after Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter Robeson was named after Derrick’s long-time mentor, Judge Robert L. Carter, and Paul Robeson. Derrick believed deeply in the importance of family and love.

While working in Pittsburgh, Derrick met Thurgood Marshall, who was then the head of the NAACP’s legal arm, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF). Marshall knew of Derrick’s resignation and was impressed by him, so he asked Derrick to join his staff. Derrick accepted on the spot.From 1960-1966, Derrick worked to dismantle the vestiges of Jim Crow and school segregation in the south alongside Thurgood Marshall, future federal court judges Robert L. Carter and Constance Baker Motley, Lewis Steel, Jack Greenberg and others. Derrick supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases in the South. Upon leaving LDF, he continued his school desegregation work as deputy director of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. During this time, Derrick became interested in teaching law, but his initial applications to a few law schools went nowhere.

He was then offered a job as the first executive director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty at the University of Southern California Law School where he ran a public interest law center and taught his first classes.—


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Derrick A. Bell, Jr. (Nov. 6, 1930 – Oct. 5, 2011) was the first tenured African-American professor of Law at Harvard University, and largely credited as the originator of Critical Race Theory. Born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Bell received an A.B. from Duquesne University in 1952 and an LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1957. After graduation, and after a recommendation from then United States Associate Attorney General William Rogers, Bell took a position with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. He was the only Black person working for the Justice Department at the time. In 1959, the government asked him to resign his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) because it was thought that his objectivity, and that of the department, might be compromised or called into question. Bell quit rather than give up his NAACP membership.

Soon afterwards, Bell took a position as an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), crafting legal strategies at the forefront of the battle to undo racist laws and segregation in schools. At the LDF, he worked alongside other prominent civil rights attorneys such as Thurgood Marshall, Robert L. Carter and Constance Baker Motley. Bell was assigned to Mississippi, the cradle of the Deep South, where racism was at its most virulent and entrenched. While working at the LDF, Bell supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases and spearheaded the fight of 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 something’s pushed, unless you litigate, nothing happens.”

In the mid-1960s Bell took a short term position with the University of Southern California. In 1969, with the help of protests from black students for a minority faculty member, Bell was hired to teach at Harvard Law School. At Harvard, Bell established a new course in civil rights law, published a celebrated case book, Race, Racism and American Law, and produced 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 School’s 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 previously offered through university; Bell saw this as a case of discrimination. This was the first case in which Bell’s 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.—Wikipedia

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On YouTube

Derrick Bell: Advice to Young African Americans  /  Derrick Bell: Civil Rights Cases

Derrick Bell: Appointed Law School Dean  / Derrick Bell: Literary Achievements

Derrick Bell: My Family / Derrick Bell: Employed by the U.S. Department of Justice

Derrick Bell: The NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund  / Derrick Bell Faces at the Bottom of the Well 1992

Professor Bell discussed his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, published by Basic Books, which addressed the problem of racism in America and the class differences involved in discrimination against minorities. In the book, he discusses the civil rights movement in American society, and concludes that racism is permanent, and will always be part of society.

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Derrick_Bell_Told Law Students Interview (Audio)

“Stand Up,  Speak Out,” Derrick Bell Told Law Students

Terry Gross spoke with Derrick Bell in 1992, two years into his protest against Harvard, and six years before

Harvard Law School would finally grant tenure to a female black professor.


Terry Gross, host: Now you left Harvard on a leave without pay, saying that you wouldn’t return until an African-American woman was given tenure at the law school.

Derrick Bell: Yeah.

Terry Gross: And after two years of your leave without pay, you were dismissed by Harvard because their policy is of a maximum two-year leave.

Derrick Bell: Right.

Terry Gross: Let me ask you, since you think it’s very important that African-American women students have African-American women teachers, as an African-American male professor what do you feel that you offer your African-American students that your white counterpart couldn’t provide?

Derrick Bell: Yeah. I teach constitutional law a course on the Supreme Court and one on civil rights. But in all my courses, I really have to teach the basic messages of my life—and that is 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.

And while I certainly miss my position at Harvard—I worked very hard for it, and people tell me I should have stayed and worked from within—in some ways, I am grateful for the opportunity to, in so public a way, practice what I have preached for so long. Because if only a few students get that message, then those few students – to the extent that they are able to practice it in their own lives—will receive the kind of spiritual soul-satisfying dividends that I think I’ve received, and make me believe that that’s really an important thing of what life is all about.

Terry Gross: You can make the argument that your method of dealing with this by taking the lead was actually a self-defeating way of handling it, because now the students don’t have you there either.

Derrick Bell: That’s right. But there are five other black men, all very capable. And I think that some of them will be more willing to step into the role that I was playing now that I’m not there, that my presence tended to perhaps stifle some of their development as leaders.

I learned this hard lesson as a civil rights lawyer, when during the ’60s I would fly into town and meet with several groups, and take down all the information about their problems and the discrimination in the schools or in the public accommodations, and would fly back to New York and prepare the complaints and get them filed and handle the cases. And I thought that—I tell you—I thought that my place in heaven was assured.

But looking back on it, I see that I, by my flying in, was really usurping the leadership potential of many local people who, even after I won the case, if they didn’t organize and inform their constituencies of what had been done through the courts, nothing would change. So that I am much more humble with regard to my role today than I was as a young civil rights lawyer.

Terry Gross: Harvard Law School wasn’t the first place that you quit in protest. In 1959, you were working in the Justice Department and you were told to drop your membership in the NAACP.

Derrick Bell: Because it was a conflict of interest. I was in the new Civil Rights Division and that seemed strange to me, and I checked with a number of friends in important places and almost to a person they told me stay and work from within. And I’ve always been a little suspect of that argument. It’s very comfortable and convenient, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily accurate.

In any event, I decided that I would not resign my membership, and I would wait for them to fire me, which they didn’t. They simply moved me out of my office into the hall and started to give me kind of busywork, which was a message that maybe I should leave, and that’s what I did.

But in that instance as in so many others, I went back to my hometown, Pittsburgh, and began working as the executive director of NAACP, and I learned long years later that one of the people I had gone to for advice, Bill Hastie, who was the first black federal judge, had gone to Thurgood Marshall, his long-time friend, and told him about my situation. So that when Thurgood came through Pittsburgh speaking – he was then general counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund—he said: boy, what’s a lawyer doing in a non-lawyer job? And I tried to explain. He wasn’t even listening. He said, come on, join me in New York, which I did post-haste.

Well, that was a marvellous experience, working with the Legal Defense Fund in the early ’60s, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t have gotten had I not done what I thought was right with regard to my NAACP membership with the Justice Department.


ource: NPR

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Patricia J. Williams  Remembers Derrick Bell

I had the great fortune to work as a research assistant for him, updating the first two editions of his textbook Race, Racism and American Law. It was the best job I ever had, not only because of what I learned about the practice of law but because he connected me to a practice of being. He was what Malcolm Gladwell has called a “nodal” person: anything worth knowing could be found through him. With all due respect to Kevin Bacon, Derrick Bell was only two or three degrees removed from everyone on the planet.

A few years after I graduated from law school, Professor Bell urged me to think about teaching. It was not a career path I ever would have considered otherwise. This was at a time when there were virtually no women in law teaching—to say nothing of women of color. He said he just saw me as teaching; and so it was. It would be too easy to say he was visionary like that; but the truth is he made things happen. He believed in a broadly inclusive mandate for equality that was boundless and prescient. He pushed and he pulled and he checked in on his students. He made friends with them for life. He was so unqualifiedly selfless that many of us called him Father Derrick—not because he was ever paternalistic but because he was such a wise provider to those of us stumbling about in a professional world that was new, inscrutable and not altogether welcoming. He was a mentor before we had a word for it.—


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Ethical Ambition : Living a Life of Meaning and Worth

By Derrick Bell

Bell suggests a more personal way of addressing life’s meaning, discussing incidents in his own life that may help others find an answer to this question. In particular, he stresses his need to subordinate personal ambition to the Civil Rights Movement. His principled stand involved him in several crucial conflicts, one of which led to his resignation from the faculty of Harvard Law School. (He is now a visiting professor at NYU.) Bell also presents insights on his friendship with women and on religion, again from a personal perspective.—Library Journal

Bell, law professor and former civil rights lawyer, has repeatedly shown himself a model of principle and conscience. The first black tenured professor in the Harvard Law School, he endured personal sacrifice and criticism after taking a voluntary unpaid leave of absence to protest the school’s failure to secure a woman of color in a tenured-track position. Bell provides substantial insight into his struggle to meet what he calls an ethical standard. He admits that an obsession with ambition, even in an altruistic sense, may violate the ethical obligations owed to family. He explores the conflicts of issues in his own religious traditions that he negotiates to reach a higher spiritual awareness often lost in traditional religions. Bell also cites examples of widely known ethically principled individuals—W. E. B. Du Bois and Martin L. King Jr., among others—who often strove for higher ethical standards, alone and at great personal cost. His book offers great insight into how an individual seeks to live by the highest of personal standards and ideals.— Booklist

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Afrolantica Legacies

By Derrick Bell

What I found most impressive about this book is the way it challenges assumptions and attitudes about Jewish racism and hegemony. Bell is a courageous and brilliant writer, and this is the best novel I have read in several months. And as a feminist and white woman, I found it much more interesting than many other books by white writers who attempt to address these issues. Highly recommended.—

Amazon reader

Derrick Bell is the well known former Harvard law professor who left his tenured position at Harvard because of the school’s refusal to deal equitably with women of color. He has written a number of books, and those featuring Geneva Crenshaw are among his best. This latest book focuses on racism, and takes a deeper look at Jewish-black relationships, and the property rights in white skin color. While most thinking black Americans wouldn’t find much to challenge here, many whites will find this a disturbing book on a number of levels. The statement made by the fictional president of the USA that “we can no longer afford whiteness as an assumed right of citizenship” is one which should engender serious thinking among whites who want to really understand 21st century America. Even though this book was published in 1998, the issues it raises have not disappeared with the change in the century, increased numbers of “mixed” race children, and increased intermarriage between American blacks and others.—

Amazon reader

posted 10 October 2011 

 The Permanence of Racism (1992) / Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

(Derrick Bell)

Wife of Professor Derrick Bell speaks out

In an exclusive interview, Janet Dewart Bell, widow of Harvard Professor Derrick Bell,

talked to Ed Schultz about the conservative attacks on her husband’s character

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Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

By Derrick Bell

In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school’s hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell’s fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard’s president and all of the school’s black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination.

Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of Bell’s And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back in some of these ominous allegories, which speak from the depths of anger and despair. Bell now teaches at New York University Law School.—Publishers Weekly

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Malcolm X

A Life of Reinvention

By Manning Marable

Years in the making-the definitive biography of the legendary black activist. Of the great figure in twentieth-century American history perhaps none is more complex and controversial than Malcolm X. Constantly rewriting his own story, he became a criminal, a minister, a leader, and an icon, all before being felled by assassins’ bullets at age thirty-nine. Through his tireless work and countless speeches he empowered hundreds of thousands of black Americans to create better lives and stronger communities while establishing the template for the self-actualized, independent African American man. In death he became a broad symbol of both resistance and reconciliation for millions around the world. Manning Marable’s new biography of Malcolm is a stunning achievement. Filled with new information and shocking revelations that go beyond the Autobiography, Malcolm X unfolds a sweeping story of race and class in America, from the rise of Marcus Garvey and the Ku Klux Klan to the struggles of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties

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The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly).

Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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