Derrick Bell, a legal scholar who continuously worked to expose the racism that exists within society has passed away. Mr. Bell, 80 died early this morning at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital with his wife, Janet Dewart by his side. Mr. Bell was born on November 6, 1930 in Pittsburgh, where he eventually ended up attending the University of Pittsburgh Law School. At that time, he was the only black student. He also served in the Air Force for two years, with one taking place in Korea.
Afterward, he briefly joined the Justice Department, soon after he went to work for the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund. In 1968, he moved out west to teach at the University of Southern California, where he was courted by Harvard Law but turned them down. During the early 80′s he worked as the dean at the University of Oregon but left when an Asian woman was denied tenure there. He eventually returned to Harvard in 1986, where he stayed until the law school refused to tenure a black female. Bell, then decided to take a position at New York University Law School, where he remained until his death.
Not afraid of being seen as a controversial figure, even though he described himself as not “confrontational by nature”, he always led by example and on his own terms. While in his 20′s, when working at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, he was told to relinquish his ties with the N.A.A.C.P., instead of holding on to his Justice Department position, he opted to quit.
A pioneer of “critical race theory,” in which the law is examined to see how race benefits or hinders those that come into contact with the law or legal institutions. Mr. Bell also believed that whites were not quick to assist with the issues surrounding blacks, unless they had something to gain from the interaction.
Mr. Bell was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School and the first black dean of a law school that was not historically black. Yet, even with obtaining such prestigious jobs throughout his career, which never stopped him from stepping away from any position – if he felt that what they were doing was unjust. I cannot continue to urge students to take risks for what they believe if I do not practice my own precepts, he often stated.
That line of thinking led him to leave his tenured position at Harvard Law School, 30 years after accepting their offer, due to the school not being willing to tenure any of other black professors.
Ms. Dewart and three sons survive him from his first marriage, Derrick Albert Bell III and Douglas Dubois Bell, both of Pittsburgh, and Carter Robeson Bell of New York; two sisters, Janet Bell of Pittsburgh and Constance Bell of Akron, Ohio; and a brother, Charles Bell of New York.
Cynthia Wright is an avid lover of all things geeky. When she isn’t freelancing, she can be found on her blog BGA Life and on Twitter at @cynisright.