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Derrick Bell: Losing a champion for equality

Charles J. Ogletree Jr.
Derrick Bell: Losing a champion for equality

Author: Tony IrvingDerrick Bell, the first male African American professor at Harvard Law School (HLS), passed away Oct. 5.

It was with great sadness that I received the news that my mentor, teacher and dear friend, professor Derrick A. Bell Jr. passed away in New York on Oct. 5 after a long illness. He was 80 years old.

I had the honor and privilege of being one of Bell’s students when he taught at Harvard Law School during the 1970s. He took me, and the small cohort of other students of color who were there, under his wing and became a beloved figure whom we admired, trusted and turned to repeatedly for guidance and support.

I remained close friends with Bell for more than 35 years. Today I mourn his death as a deeply painful and personal loss, as well as a loss to the cause of racial equality and to the thousands whom he inspired and mentored.

Early on in his career, Bell distinguished himself as a staff attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. He relinquished the position after two years over pressure to give up his membership in the NAACP. As counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, under the tutelage of Thurgood Marshall, Bell administered 300 desegregation cases involving schools and restaurant chains in the South between 1960 and 1966.

Later, for more than 40 years, Bell was a distinguished teacher and scholar who influenced the lives and careers of law students at the University of Southern California; Harvard Law School, where he was the first black tenured professor; the University of Oregon Law School; and, for the past 20 years, New York University Law School.

He pioneered a new field of critical race theory and legal scholarship when he was asked to write a foreword for a very prestigious annual article for the Harvard Law Review, focusing on civil rights, race, gender and equality. The article was supported by then Harvard Law Review President and now Harvard Law professor Carol Steiker, as well as by then Supervisory Editor and now Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

The article was called “The Civil Rights Chronicles.” Bell created a fictitious character by the name of Geneva Crenshaw who asked probing questions about race, gender and equality throughout the piece. This approach and format was completely novel and changed legal scholarship across the country. The article became the basis of several subsequent books by Bell, inducing “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Race;” “And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice;” and “Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform.”  

Only Bell could write a Law Review article that became the topic of several books that ultimately became a new way to examine the legal system. This was part of his creative genius and his bold leadership. He inspired others to follow his lead, and he found creative new ways to make complex legal arguments accessible and provocative.

He also championed the building of a first-rate law-school faculty that reflected our nation’s diversity, and he sacrificed his own career, more than once, to advocate for fairer hiring practices in the institutions where he taught. Bell’s departure from Harvard was, as was true at Oregon before that, a result of the failures of the two schools to promote women of color to their tenured law-school faculty.  

For me his loss is personally devastating. He started out as an inspiring teacher and mentor who became a close and beloved friend. I was particularly thrilled that he taught my daughter, Rashida Ogletree George, when she was a student at NYU Law School and a teaching assistant for Bell.

His influence over two generations of Ogletrees offers just one example of the huge impact of his life and scholarship on the legal profession and on legal training. He taught me so many lessons: about the complex legal challenges posed by our nation’s racial history, about mentoring and serving as an example to the next generation, and about taking professional and personal risks over issues that matter. I’m sure that, in my lifetime, I will never see another like Derrick Bell, and I will miss him every day.

He also leaves behind a devastated family. Bell’s first marriage was to Jewel Bell, who died in 1990. They were the parents of three sons: Derrick III, Carter and Douglas. In 1992 he married Janet Dewart Bell, a communications expert. The couple lived in New York City.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that contributions in his name be made to the Derrick Bell Lecture Fund at the following address:

Derrick Bell Lecture Fund
New York University School of Law
Office of Development and Alumni Relations
D’Agostino Hall
110 W. Third St., Second Floor
New York, NY 10012

The memorial service for Bell will be held on Nov. 3, 2011, at Riverside Church, 120th St. and Riverside Drive, in New York City.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr. is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.