Remembering Derrick Bell

Former colleagues, students and friends remember the activist law professor.

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Derrick Bell on the Harvard campus in 1990 (Getty Images)

Lani Guinier, Bennett Boskey Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

You would always get straight talk from professor Derrick Bell.

When I was a young lawyer, barely six years out of law school, I was at a crossroads. I could stay in the U.S. Department of Justice and take a position in the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division, or I could join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc., as a staff attorney. The LDF job beckoned me. I had seen myself as a civil rights lawyer since I witnessed a courageous LDF lawyer, Constance Baker Motley, head erect, walk through an angry mob in order to assert James Meredith's rights to enroll in the University of Mississippi. I wanted to follow in Constance Baker Motley's footsteps.

Despite this idea that I carried around in my head, I was reluctant to leave the Justice Department. I thought that was where I would get helpful training as a litigator. Truth be told, some part of me wanted to stay at DOJ because I was attached to my DOJ "badge." It gave me an identity as someone who deserved respect. It was my shield and my sword. Whenever I traveled, I could pull that badge out of its leather embossed case, and immediately the airport officials or the clerk's office in a Southern courthouse would treat me with respect.

I knew I needed to turn to Derrick Bell for advice. Professor Bell had given up a position as the only black lawyer in the entire Justice Department in the 1950s. The Department of Justice wanted him to pledge loyalty to the DOJ at the expense of his public loyalty to the community from which he had emerged. The DOJ demanded that he resign his membership in the NAACP. Derrick would have none of it. And while I did not face as stark a choice, Derrick knew the decision I should make. His response was swift. "Go work at LDF," he declared. "You say you want to be a civil rights lawyer? Well, then you need to go and mix it up with real people."

Derrick Bell was reminding me that the work of a civil rights lawyer was not about the lawyer's credentials. It was about the lawyer's commitment to her clients. It was not about whom you sat with. It was whom you stood with. Of course he was right. He would make the choice he told me to make again and again. Derrick always chose community over credentials.

Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Derrick Bell was an impressive trailblazer in legal academia who was an encouraging, generous, inspiring figure to law professors of color. He inaugurated the course on race-relations law at Harvard Law School and framed the subject in a richly documented casebook, Race, Racism, and American Law. The front piece of that volume was unlike any other in the law-school curriculum. It featured a photograph of the fabulous sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the winners' stand at the 1968 Olympics, heads bowed in disappointment over racism in America and arms raised aloft in defiant protest. The choice of that photo to adorn his landmark casebook was vintage Derrick.  

Professor Bell and I disagreed about various matters publicly and sometimes sharply. He was helpful to me throughout my career, however, even in the teeth of conflict. I salute him and miss him.  

Peggy Cooper Davis, John S.R. Shad Professor of Lawyering and Ethics; director, Experiential Learning Lab, New York University

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