An Iconoclast and a Community Builder

Derrick Bell, a distinguished legal scholar, prolific writer and tireless champion for equality, died Oct. 5. He helped to develop critical race theory, a body of legal scholarship that explores how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions. And more broadly, over the course of his five-decade career, he worked to expose the persistence of racism.

Dean Martha Minow said: “From his work on the front lines of legal argument in the civil rights movement to his pathbreaking teaching and scholarship on civil rights and racial justice issues, Professor Derrick Bell inspired and challenged generations of colleagues and students with imagination, passion and courage.”

Bell joined the Harvard Law School faculty as a lecturer in 1969 and in 1971 became its first tenured black professor. He gave up his professorship in 1992 to protest the school’s hiring practices, specifically the lack of women of color on the faculty. His protest garnered national news coverage and stirred the passions of many students.

In 1980, Bell was appointed dean of the University of Oregon School of Law. He resigned in protest five years later after an Asian woman was denied tenure. He returned to Harvard to teach in 1986 and later led a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the school’s failure to grant tenure to two professors whose work involved critical race theory.

In 1990, Bell was appointed a full-time visiting professor at New York University School of Law on a permanent basis.

Professor Lani Guinier, who was appointed the first female black professor at Harvard Law School in 1998, told The New York Times, “[Derrick] set the agenda in many ways for scholarship on race in the academy, not just the legal academy.” She added: “Most people think of iconoclasts as lone rangers. But Derrick was both an iconoclast and a community builder. When he was opening up this path, it was not just for him. It was for all those who he knew would follow into the legal academy.”

“He has left a trail of immeasurable scholarship,” said HLS Professor Charles Ogletree ’78 of his former professor, his mentor and his friend.

Bell’s many books and articles include “Race, Racism and American Law,” which became a staple in law schools and is now in its sixth edition, and “Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform.” He also wrote two autobiographical works: “Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester” (1996) and “Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth” (2002). He was also known for using allegory and parable in his legal writing to explore race and racism.

Bell earned an A.B. from Duquesne University in 1952 and an LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He later served in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Korea for a year. After graduating from law school in 1957, Bell worked as a staff attorney at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. He resigned in protest in 1959 when the department asked him to withdraw his membership from the NAACP. He became an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and from 1960 to 1966 he administered 300 desegregation cases regarding schools and restaurant chains in the South. He later served as deputy director of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (1966) and as executive director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty at the University of Southern California Law School (1968).