Legal pioneer chose principle over prestige
DERRICK BELL made the conscious choice to be inconvenient. This legal pioneer, who died last week at 80, never allowed his own firsts to be anyone’s last word on diversity. When he became the first African-American to gain tenure at Harvard Law School, he used his position to push the door open even wider. “My challenge to the university,’’ he told me in 1988, “has always been not how long you can handle Derrick Bell, but how many Derrick Bells can you handle.’’
Choosing his principles over lofty jobs again and again, he showed that Harvard and other major universities were haphazard and slow about creating opportunities for people of color. His insistence was all the more remarkable because he was no pompous pontificator, but a stunningly gentle, spiritual soul with a soft, nearly melodic voice.
It was a voice forged in black working-class Pittsburgh. Bell was the first in his family to go to college, graduating from Duquesne University in 1952. He was the only black student at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, graduating in 1957. Though shielded from the worst consequences of racism, he moved into the civil-rights arena, he recalled in his memoir, after watching his parents struggle through ordinary life.
His mother, with little Derrick in tow, once went to a rent office, took her money out of her purse, and waved it in front of the clerk. She declared, “This is the rent money. I have it - and you will get it when you fix the back steps so that my children won’t fall and hurt themselves.’’ The landlord not only fixed the steps of their apartment, but all the steps of their nearest neighbors.
His mother’s example gave Bell the courage to speak out. He was hired after law school by the US Justice Department’s civil rights division - and quit in protest when told his $2 membership in the NAACP was a conflict of interest.
He went to the NAACP for several years to work on desegregation cases. In 1969, as Harvard Law School students demanded that scholars of color be named to the faculty, Bell was hired. Two years later, he received tenure.
He was hired away to be dean of the University of Oregon Law School in 1980, but resigned five years later when the faculty did not hire an Asian professor who was next in line after two white candidates turned down job offers. He returned to Harvard, but staged a sit-in after the school denied tenure to two professors whose work focused on how racism was embedded in the law.
Then came the protest that made him famous. Incensed by the lack of even one tenured black woman on the Harvard Law faculty, he vowed in 1990 to take a leave of absence until one was hired. Two years later, none had been hired, and Bell’s leave ran out. So he decamped to New York University. It would be six more years before Harvard finally had a tenured black woman in Lani Guinier.
Bell made himself inconvenient in other ways. He insisted that other milestones by individual African-Americans had limited meaning without broader progress toward equality. Two decades ago, when Barack Obama became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, Bell told the Los Angeles Times, “While I applaud Obama’s achievement, I guess I am not as hopeful for what this will mean for other blacks at Harvard. There is a strange character to this black achievement. When you have someone that reaches this high level, you find that he is just deemed exceptional, and it does not change society’s view of all of the rest.’’
After Obama became the first black president of the United States, Bell cautioned black law students at Yale that the history of America is a roller coaster. Advances such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Brown v. Board of Education decision were followed by segregation and re-segregation. “My great appreciation for having lived to see a day I thought would never come is, however, diluted by experience.’’ He went on to lament that “seemingly firm commitments to substantive progress were redefined, reversed, or simply ignored.’’
Derrick Bell refused to accept this. He lived so that America would make a firm commitment to progress - for everyone.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.