Pioneering Law Professor Derrick Bell Dies

Derrick Bell, the first Black professor at Harvard Law School and prolific writer who helped pioneer the critical race theory of legal scholarship, has died at age 80.

Bell died of cancer Wednesday at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, the United Press International, or UPI, news service reported.

Bell was publicly known as an uncompromising advocate for social justice principles and causes. As a young man, he resigned from the Justice Department’s civil rights division after he was told he could not belong to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, according to UPI. In 1990, while holding a tenured Harvard law school professorship, he took an unpaid leave — which became permanent — because the law school had no Black women on the faculty.

“Most people think of iconoclasts as lone rangers,” Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier, who was hired by Harvard in 1998, told UPI. “But Derrick was both an iconoclast and a community builder. When he was opening up this path, it was not just for him. It was for all those who he knew would follow into the legal academy.”

Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow wrote in a statement: “From his work on the front lines of legal argument in the civil rights movement to his path-breaking teaching and scholarship on civil rights and racial justice issues, Professor Derrick Bell inspired and challenged generations of colleagues and students with imagination, passion, and courage.”

Bell joined the Harvard Law School faculty as a lecturer in 1969 and in 1971 became its first tenured African-American professor. He gave up his professorship in 1992 to protest the school’s hiring practices, specifically the lack of women of color on the faculty, according to the Harvard Law School News page.

Bell also developed legal scholarship, which often used stories or parables to create ideas. One story, “The Space Traders,” from Bell’s 1992 book Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, was adapted into a TV show episode.  Bell’s work contributed to critical race theory, which is demonstrated in scholarship that explores how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even those intended to lessen the effects of past injustice, the Harvard Law School News page reported.

Prior to his passing, Bell was a visiting professor at New York University Law School. His other books include a textbook, Race, Racism and American Law, first published in 1973, and a 2002 memoir, Ethical Ambition.

Bell earned an A.B. from Duquesne University in 1952 and an LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh Law School. He served in the U.S. Air Force, and was stationed in Korea for a year.