By Jim Fitzgerald
Derrick Bell, a civil rights scholar and writer who was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School, has died. He was 80.
Bell died last Wednesday night of carcinoid cancer at a Manhattan hospital, his wife, Janet Dewart Bell, said Friday. He’d been diagnosed with the disease a decade ago, she said, but was still teaching at New York University Law School as recently as last week.
The dean at NYU, Richard Revesz, said, “For more than 20 years, the law school community has been profoundly shaped by Derrick’s unwavering passion for civil rights and community justice, and his leadership as a scholar, teacher, and activist.”
Bell was long dissatisfied with the progress of race relations in America despite his own success. He helped establish a field known as critical race theory by urging that U.S. laws be examined for racism embedded within them.
His 1973 casebook, “Race, Racism and American Law,” is still in use in law schools in updated editions.
Bell attained several lofty positions in his field, but more than once left them in protest.
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh law school in 1957 — The New York Times reported that he was the only black student — he was hired at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. But he resigned when he was told his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a conflict of interest.
He later worked at the NAACP’s legal defense fund, in Pittsburgh and Mississippi. He supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases in Mississippi.
In 1969, Bell was recruited by Harvard Law and two years later became its first tenured African-American professor. He left in 1980 to become dean at the University of Oregon Law School, but he left Oregon five years later to protest the school’s decision not to hire an Asian-American woman.
Bell returned to Harvard, but in 1990 he took a leave of absence to protest the absence of black women on the law school faculty.
“I cannot continue to urge students to take risks for what they believe if I do not practice my own precepts,” he said. He never returned to the school.
Harvard Law dean Martha Minow said Bell “inspired and challenged generations of colleagues and students with imagination, passion, and courage.”
In 1998, Harvard hired its first female African-American law school professor, Lani Guinier. In an interview Friday, Guinier said Bell was gentle and soft-spoken, but “a maverick” committed to enlisting others in his cause.
“He was an intellectual force, but also a person who did not think that he alone could change the world, which was certainly one of his objectives,” she said. Guinier said Bell’s death was “the passing of a force of nature.”
Bell wrote two autobiographies and a series of allegorical stories about race. One of them, “The Space Traders,” was made into a movie for television.
“He’s always been all about the students,” Bell’s wife said. “He taught by example, by inspiration, by encouragement.”
Bell is survived by his wife and three sons, Derrick, Douglass and Carter, from his first marriage to the late Jewel Hairston Bell.
Janet Bell said a memorial service will be held Nov. 3 at Riverside Church. NYU Law School has scheduled a tribute for Feb. 28.