Remembering Derrick Bell

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

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

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

Derrick was an inspiring mentor to generations of law students and legal scholars. He insisted that analysis of a legal decision was never complete until its moral and social-justice implications had been probed and any rationalizations of inequity had been exposed. He was a model of intellectual courage and principled struggle.

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