Thursday, October 6, 2011

In Memoriam: Professor Derrick Bell

Professor Derrick Bell, Visiting Professor at New York University, has passed. Bell's legacy in the law is long and deep. Bell never trained professionally as a historian; yet his scholarship reflected great historical consciousness and insight. It's fair to say, I think, that every historian of the civil rights era and every scholar of race and the law who followed him is indebted to Professor Bell.  Here are some excerpts from Bell's New York Times obit.

Derrick Bell, a legal scholar who worked to expose the persistence of racism in America through his books and articles and his provocative career moves — he gave up a Harvard Law School professorship to protest the school’s hiring practices — died on Wednesday in New York. Mr. Bell was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School and later the first black dean of a law school that is not historically black. But he was perhaps better known for resigning from prestigious jobs than for accepting them.

Addressing law students grappling with career decisions, he extolled what he called “a life of meaning and worth,” even though, he wrote, he sometimes alienated associates who saw his actions as “futile and foolish.”  ...
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 the Harvard Law School’s tenured faculty, in an interview on Wednesday.  At a rally while a student at Harvard Law School, Barack Obama compared Professor Bell to the civil rights hero Rosa Parks.


Alfred Brophy said...

Thank you for this news, Tomiko. I'm saddened to hear of Professor Bell's passing.

Mary L. Dudziak said...

Thanks, Tomiko, for sharing this sad news. Derrick Bell has been a person of singular importance in American legal education -- from his own barrier-breaking role as the first African American tenured professor at Harvard Law School, to his public and behind-the-scenes role mentoring so many who followed after him. Bell has left a legacy in his own work, and in the work of so many others who were inspired and encouraged by him. He would sometimes offer words of support to people he did not know -- like a very junior untenured law professor at Iowa who sent him an unpublished paper. His simple and kind letter to me many years ago helped me stand my ground with my first significant article, when some readers did not want to hear that archival records complicated and challenged a "simple justice" narrative of civil rights reform.

Derrick Bell has left an important paper trail so that the next generation can explore social change during his era, and his role in transforming American legal education. His extraordinary papers have been open for some time at NYU. Here's a post describing what you can find there.

Anonymous said...

Sad news, to be sure. Thank you Derrick Bell for your courage! I, as do many, use your work as a starting point. You will be missed.

David Pye, Ph.D.
University of West Georgia