Renowned as the professor who gave up his tenured position at the Harvard Law School in protest of the university's lack of minority women faculty members, Derrick Bell is also an innovative, insightful and unorthodox scholar and writer. Bell, now a professor at New York University's School of Law, helped pioneer a new style of narrative scholarship, mixing allegory and anecdote together with analysis and fact.
Bell was born in 1930 in Pittsburgh, where he was the first member of his family to go to college. After serving in the U.S. Air Force in Korea, he entered the University of Pittsburgh Law School with the goal of becoming a civil rights lawyer. He began his legal career at the Justice Department, then was recruited by Thurgood Marshall to join the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the NAACP. In 1971, Bell became the first black tenured professor at Harvard Law School.
Bell published Race, Racism and American Law, now a standard law school text, in 1973. Its critique of traditional civil rights legislation helped spark the academic movement toward critical race theory, in which scholars such as Richard Delgado, Kimberle Crenshaw and Kendall Thomas sought new paradigms for understanding and addressing racial injustice. The book's fourth edition appeared in 2000.
As a writer, Bell is best known for his series of books featuring the fictional civil rights leader Geneva Crenshaw. The books, which include And We Are Not Saved, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Gospel Choirs, and Afrolantica Legacies, interweave fables and philosophical dialogues with Bell's analyses of legal history. "I suppose there would be a problem if everyone wrote about race in the Derrick Bell style," Jeremy Waldron wrote in a New York Times review of Gospel Choirs. "We need analysis and we need social science as much as dream, dialogue and narrative. But we would certainly be the poorer if no one wrote like this; for even to be disconcerted by Mr. Bell's technique is to open oneself to the challenge of his thesis and the soaring power of the music that sustains it."
At the age of 70, after a lifetime of passionate commitment to social justice, Bell wrote Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth. The book draws on the lives of role models like Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Robeson, and Medgar Evers, as well as on Bell's own life, to explore what it means to live and work with integrity, dignity and compassion. "We live in a system that espouses merit, equality, and a level playing field, but exalts those with wealth, power, and celebrity, however gained," Bell writes. His own accomplishments are an inspiration to the brave souls willing to buck that system.
Good to Know
Back to Top
Bell gave up his tenured position at Harvard Law School in 1992, when he refused to return from the two-year, unpaid leave of absence he took to protest the school's failure to hire and tenure minority women.
Bell had launched a similar protest before, while serving as dean of the Oregon Law School. He resigned his Oregon position in 1985 after the faculty directed that he not extend an offer to an Asian-American faculty candidate who was third on the list for a faculty position. When the top two candidates (both white males) declined the position, the law faculty decided to reopen the search rather than hire the Asian-American woman.
In 1994, the story "Space Traders" from Bell's book Faces at the Bottom of the Well was made into an HBO movie starring Robert Guillaume.
President Barack Obama was a student of Bell's at Harvard Law School.
Back to Top