Remembering Derrick Bell

Your recent “Tribute” to the late Professor Derrick Bell aptly identified him as an “iconoclast” and “community builder.” Professor Bell was certainly those things, but he was also much more.

I first met Professor Bell in the summer of 1970, right after my first year at HLS and right before he became the first tenured black professor on the Harvard Law School faculty. It was a time of turmoil (both at HLS and in the country as a whole) over the Vietnam War, social unrest and strident political disagreement. I had the honor of serving as his research assistant that summer (and for some time thereafter), as he was beginning to compile materials on racism, slavery and the development of civil rights law in the United States, for what ultimately became his casebook, “Race, Racism and American Law,” which as your “Tribute” notes “became a staple in law schools and is now in its sixth edition.”

I spent much of that summer deep in the stacks of Widener Library finding source materials on slavery and racism, often returning to his office covered in dust with the volumes he needed. I also remember sharing a table in a corner of Professor Bell’s office, where for months I helped him review, sort and analyze these materials, while he shaped them into what would become his casebook.

Working at the side of this pioneering and young law professor, I learned much about the law and benefited from Professors Bell’s critical thinking every day. But even more importantly, I learned what a warm, caring individual he could be, as he thoughtfully and supportively directed my efforts and graciously made me feel that we were in a collaborative, creative effort together.

In those days, it was difficult to get to know our professors. We had very large classes, few opportunities for extended interactions with faculty, and the disruptive impacts of student strikes and the Vietnam War to distract us. But that summer, when I spent extensive time with Professor Bell, I was privileged to work at his side each day. I learned about racism which he confronted both personally and as a lawyer, about his litigation at the forefront of the civil rights effort. I began to grasp, for the first time, what it truly meant to have a life in the practice of law. I also began to appreciate much more fully the importance of the rule of law in the American democratic process and the role of lawyers in protecting rights of the poor and underrepresented in our society.

I felt like I had won the lottery, working for Professor Bell that summer. He had a profound influence upon me and upon many other law students, at HLS and elsewhere. He was a passionate advocate for the causes he advanced, and we shall miss him.