Derrick Bell, a legal scholar who worked to expose the persistence of racism in America through his books and articles and his provocative career moves — he gave up a Harvard Law School professorship to protest the school’s hiring practices — died on Wednesday in New York. He was 80.
Professor Bell’s death brought tears to my eyes. Like Gary Bellow, Prof. Bell was one of those very few Harvard faculty who made you feel better about yourself, stronger, and more convinced that ideas made a difference. I think the only law school casebook that I used and still have is Bell’s Race, Racism, and American Law. It opens with a photo of the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games, a dedication to the “all those who throughout America’s history have risked its wrath to protest it faults.” The dedication includes a poem about the Salute, which includes the following lines:
The dramatic finale of an / Extraordinary achievement / Performed for a Nation which / Had there been a choice/ Would have chosen another, and / If given a chance / Will accept the achievement / And neglect the achievers. . . .
In term’s of yesterday’s deaths, it is Steve Jobs’ that will get the attention. It is not to lessen Job’s importance to the world to note that while Jobs changed the tools we use, Derrick Bell changed the way we think about freedom, equality, fairness , and individual responsibility — surely more important in the end. I tried pasting the first few lines of the above poem into Google — it generated no direct reference, but the words generated as the top referral the Wikipedia entry on Leadership. That tells you something.