Bell, Derrick Albert, Jr.

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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Derrick Albert Bell Jr. was the first tenured black law professor at Harvard Law School, a renegade CIVIL RIGHTS scholar and proponent and a prolific author of civil rights-related works, including the critically acclaimed books And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1987) and Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992).

Bell was born November 6, 1930, in Pittsburgh. The seeds of his views on racial injustice?and his response to racial bigotry and prejudice?were sown in the Great Depression. When he was five years old, he watched his mother, Ada Elizabeth Bell, demand that the family's landlord fix the rotted stairs behind their apartment. His mother finally told the landlord, who had ignored her requests for months, that she refused to pay the rent unless he fixed the stairs. A few days later, the landlord fixed their steps?and all the other broken steps on their road. Bell's interpretation of the event? "Good things happen when you push." Bell has also said that he carries his father's "dignified suspicion" of whites in hard-time Pittsburgh and his mother's homespun conception of a rights-based economy of self-respecting agitation.

The eldest of four children, Bell earned a bachelor of arts degree and an Air Force commission when he graduated from Duquesne University in 1952, and then he served in the KOREAN WAR. While in the Air Force, Bell made his first discreet push for racial equality: he complained to the commanding officer at a base in Louisiana about black soldiers having to sit in the back of the bus whenever they left base. After

Derrick A. Bell Jr.

COURTESY OF DERRICK BELL

his military stint, he attended the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, lived at home, and kept the books for his father, Derrick Bell Sr., who ran a trash-collection business. Bell was elected as the associate editor-in-chief for the Pittsburgh Law Review, a prestigious position for a student to hold at any law school. He competed strenuously in law school and has admitted to being "a little obnoxious" in his attempt to succeed in an otherwise all-white class: in the yearbook, underneath his picture, the following description is given: "Knows everything and wants others to know he knows everything."

After graduating fourth in his class and being admitted to the District of Columbia bar in 1957, Bell applied to a top local law firm, which had asked the law school to send over its best students. "When I walked in, there were all these gasps," he said. "It was like a line of heart attacks down the hall." Bell did not get the job, but he did go on to become one of only three black attorneys at the U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE after being assigned to the Civil Rights Division. His first professional act of defiance came in 1959, when he quit his job at the Justice Department in protest after being told to give up his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which the Justice Department considered a conflict of interest.

"CIVIL RIGHTS CAMPAIGNS AIMED AT CHANGING THE RULES WITHOUT AFFECTING THE UNDERLYING STATUS QUO."

?DERRICK BELL JR.

Bell returned to Pittsburgh and although he had passed the Pennsylvania bar, he accepted the position of executive secretary of the NAACP's Pittsburgh branch. A year later he...

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