Derrick Albert Bell Jr. was a law professor, legal scholar and racial justice advocate. He was a man of many accomplishments and was best known for his work in the field of critical race theory, a term he coined that embodies scholarship on race, racism and power, and examines how racism is embedded in all laws and legal institutions. He died October 5 from carcinoid cancer at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. He was 80.
Bell’s work in promoting the study of critical race theory has inspired similar disciplines such as Latino Critical Race Studies and Asian American Critical Race Studies. He was described as being both an iconoclast and a community leader.
He was born on Nov. 6, 1930, in Pittsburgh to Derrick Albert and Ada Elizabeth Childress. After graduating from Schenley High School near Pittsburgh’s Hill District, he became the first member of his family to go to college, attending Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1952.
A member of the R.O.T.C. at Duquesne, he was later an Air Force officer for two years, one of them in Korea. Afterward he attended the University of Pittsburgh Law School, where he was the only Black student, earning his degree in 1957.
After his stint at the Justice Department, he headed the Pittsburgh office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, leading efforts to integrate a public swimming pool and a skating rink. Later, assigned to Mississippi, he supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases.
In 1969, after teaching briefly at the University of Southern California, he was recruited and hired by Harvard Law School, where students were pressuring the administration to appoint a Black professor. Bell conceded that he did not have the usual qualifications for a Harvard professorship, like a federal court clerkship or a degree from a top law school.
Although he worked tirelessly to expose racism, Bell was not an eternal optimist. His idea of “the interest convergence dilemma” said that whites would not join efforts to improve the position of Blacks unless they found it in their interest.
In addition to his scholarly contributions, Bell believed that his personal decisions made as much of a statement about his beliefs as did the content of any of his professional work, a sentiment he expressed in his 2002 memoir “Ethical Ambition.”
“Your faith in what you believe must be a living, working faith that draws you away from comfort and security, and toward risk through confrontation,” he wrote.
Bell lived this maxim throughout his life, seemingly undeterred by the lure of prestige or power, and many of his most storied accomplishments were accompanied by resignations and protest.
In 1971, Bell became the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School, but he resigned from the prestigious post when he felt he had been discriminated against after a white university vice president tried to purchase a house that Bell had been previously offered through university.
While working at the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, Bell resigned from his job after his bosses advised him to give up his NAACP membership because they felt it was a conflict of interest.
In 1980, Bell became the first Black dean of a non-HBCU law school when he accepted the position at the University of Oregon School of Law. Bell’s tenure as dean was short lived, however. He resigned in 1985 when an Asian woman was denied tenure at the school.
Bell’s final act of professional protest occurred when he was invited back to Harvard to teach. He vowed to take an unpaid leave of absence until the school agreed to add a Black woman on its tenured faculty for the first time. Bell eventually left Harvard behind the incident and began teaching at New York University School of Law, where he worked until his death.
Bell is survived by: wife, Janet Dewart Bell; children, Derrick A. Bell III, Douglas Dubois Bell and Carter Robeson Bell; two sisters, Janet Bell and Constance Bell; and a brother, Charles Bell.
—BET News and The New York Times contributed to this report.