Legal Pioneer Chose Principle Over Prestige

Derrick Bell Jr. never allowed his own firsts to be anyone's last word on diversity, writes Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson.

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Derrick Bell Jr.

In his Boston Globe column, Derrick Z. Jackson eulogizes Derrick Bell Jr., reflecting on how he used his position as a tenured professor at Harvard Law School to open the door wider for other African Americans. He died last week at 80.

... "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.

Read Derrick Z. Jackson's complete column at the Boston Globe.

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