We Should Defend Our Own

David Shankbone
David Shankbone

There is such a thing as honor. And when the honor of a great man is attacked, there must be a response. 

Professor Derrick Bell, who passed away last October, was a great man. His legacy to the legal profession; to civil rights law and thinking; to legal scholarship; to the hundreds of students he taught; and to the scores of black leaders, academics and activists he mentored cannot be calculated. He refused to compromise with racism by studying it, resisting it and showing us how to build a life filled with joy, humor and integrity, while wrestling with our nation's most ugly and intractable problem. 

So when the likes of Fox News analysts, Sarah Palin and muckraking bloggers launched a smear campaign against Bell, it should not be treated as politics as usual. So far, the defense of Bell's good name has fallen to his beloved wife, Janet Dewart Bell, who offered a powerful and moving account of Derrick's life and trenchant critique of the right-wing smear machine, and professor Charles Ogletree, who challenged Bell's detractors directly before Fox viewers.


Bell, an ardent student and lover of gospel music, would understand when I say that if those of us who have been touched and influenced by his life and work do not vigorously speak out in his defense, "the rocks will cry out."

The source of the smear campaign against Bell was the late Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing provocateur for whom the truth seemed often a mere annoyance and for whom character assassination was his stock in trade. Several years ago, Breitbart set his sights on ACORN, the fair-housing organizing group, whose voter-participation efforts many credit with registering thousands of Obama voters in 2008.

For the most virulent on the right, dismantling ACORN was a post-election priority. It was accomplished by discrediting ACORN with a filmed sting operation whose tapes were doctored to make the organization look as if its employees encouraged community members to engage in illegal conduct. Spooked Democrats in Congress acquiesced in a GOP push to defund ACORN, cutting off essential funds and precipitating the organization's end.

Breitbart's next masterpiece was his promotion of a two-minute excerpt of a 20-year-old video of former U.S. Dept. of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod. The selectively edited video of Sherrod at an NAACP conference suggested she was promoting a message of antiwhite racism (when, in fact, her message was about how ultimately class was more important than race). Breitbart succeeded in scaring Obama administration officials into precipitously firing Sherrod.


When the full video was aired, Breitbart's diabolical scheme was apparent. Although USDA officials apologized and offered Sherrod her job back (she declined) and President Obama called Sherrod directly, her name will remain connected with a characterization completely manufactured by the right wing.  

Sherrod described her life as having been turned "upside down" by Breitbart's smear. Van Jones, a White House adviser on environmental issues, felt compelled to resign when the right's character assassins set their sites on him.


Jeremiah Wright, a Marine Corps veteran with a 36-year career as a distinguished preacher in a predominantly white Protestant denomination, may never fully recover his reputation. If one goes on the Rev. Wright's website, one can order from among more than 50 sermons he delivered since the year 2000. But most Americans will only know several out-of-context sentences from two of Wright's sermons.

It's unfortunate that young people may be introduced to Bell through the sordid slanders of Fox News commentators. They will not know that Bell was the first in his family to attend college. That he was an army veteran. That he litigated school-desegregation cases in Boston and Georgia. That he was the first African-American tenured professor at Harvard Law School and that he gave up that position in protest of that school's failure to hire and tenure an African-American female law professor. The rally at which the then-student Obama introduced Bell took place in the midst of that controversy.


Bell is perhaps best-known for his provocative and groundbreaking scholarship. He argued that racial progress in America is tied to the self-interest of whites and demonstrated how America's concern with its Cold War image laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education. He wrote a series of books featuring the character Geneva Crenshaw, a statuesque black woman who traveled back in time to engage in robust debates with America's slave-holding founding fathers.

Mainstream news sources, which are well able to examine Bell's rich and powerful writings and speeches, have no particular interest in pushing back against right-wing smears. Instead, the media advances the right-wing objective — asking only about how the association with Bell will harm President Obama rather than exploring the systematic effort of some on the right to discredit the reputations of highly respected black leaders. Headlines ask, "Did Obama Hug a Radical?" or, even more obnoxious, "Derrick Bell's Widow: Unaware of Second Hug Between Prez and Prof" — as if Bell were some kind of contaminating force whose very touch might infect our president with a dangerous form of radicalism. 


It was particularly galling to watch the mainstream media's failure to give Bell the benefit of the doubt during the same week that encomiums were offered to the suddenly deceased Breitbart. In countless articles and media accounts, Breitbart was described routinely as a "journalist" — a curious title for a writer who never let the truth or fact-checking stand in the way of an inflammatory story. But Breitbart's untimely death appears to cover a multitude of his ills.

By now it should be apparent that the Breitbarts and Hannitys of the world would character-assassinate Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King if they could get away with it. They have no standards. They only have one unrelenting goal: to damage President Obama without regard to the cost.


And so it falls on us to fight hard, early and unrelentingly for the good name of great men and women whose reputations are smeared for political gain. Let it be said that Derrick Bell was one of the most courageous, brilliant, humane, visionary men I have ever known. Let the rocks be silent.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor of law at the University of Maryland and a regular contributor to The Root.


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