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Derrick Albert Bell Jr. (November 6, 1930 – October 5, 2011) was the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard Law School and later one of the first African-American deans of a law school.
Bell received a B.A. from Duquesne University. He was a member of the Duquesne Reserve Officers' Training Corps and later served as an Air Force officer for two years. He received an LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1957. After graduation, and after a recommendation from then United States associate attorney general William P. Rogers, Bell took a position with the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department. He was one of the few African-American lawyers working for the Justice Department at the time. In 1959, the government asked him to resign his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) because it was thought that his objectivity, and that of the department, might be compromised or called into question. Bell left the Justice Department rather than giving up his NAACP membership.
Afterward, Bell took a position as an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), crafting legal strategies to undo racist laws and segregation in schools. At the LDF, he worked alongside Thurgood Marshall, Robert L. Carter, and Constance Baker Motley. Bell was assigned to Mississippi. While working at the LDF, Bell supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases and spearheaded the fight of James Meredith to secure admission to the University of Mississippi, over the protests of Governor Ross Barnett.
In 1969, with the help of protests from African-American Harvard Law School students for a minority faculty member, Bell was hired to teach there. At Harvard, Bell established a new course in civil rights law, published a celebrated casebook, Race, Racism and American Law, and produced a steady stream of law review articles.
In 1980 he left Harvard to become dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, but he resigned in 1985 when the school did not offer a position to an Asian-American woman. After returning to Harvard in 1986, he staged a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the school’s failure to grant tenure to two professors whose work involved critical race theory.
In 1990 he took an unpaid leave of absence, vowing not to return until the school hired, for the first time, an African-American woman to join its tenured faculty. His employment effectively ended when the school refused to extend his leave. By then, he was teaching at New York University School of Law, where he remained a visiting professor until his death.
He was a pioneer of critical race theory, a body of legal scholarship that explored how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even many of those intended to redress past injustices. His 1973 book, “Race, Racism and American Law,” became a staple in law schools.
Derrick Bell died on October 5, 2011, he was 80 years-old.
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