At a February 28 ceremony, the New York University Annual Survey of American Law dedicated its 69th volume to the late Derrick Bell, who passed away last October after spending two decades at NYU School of Law as a full-time visiting professor.

Bell, a constitutional law scholar and one of the founding voices of the critical race theory movement, came to NYU in 1990 after leaving Harvard Law School, where he was the first tenured African American professor, to protest the fact that Harvard had no tenured black females on the faculty. It was not his first such act: decades earlier he had left his first post-law school job in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, where he was the only African American lawyer, when he was asked to give up his NAACP membership.

John Sexton, Patricia Williams, Gabrielle Prisco '03, and Norman DorsenRecalling these facts while introducing the ceremony, Dean Richard Revesz said, “The two qualities that I think best exemplify Derrick’s life and that weave in and out of everything he did professionally are courage and integrity.” After resigning from the Justice Department, Bell became the first assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, working for Thurgood Marshall. (Revesz would clerk for Marshall in later years.)

Bell’s NYU Law colleague Norman Dorsen, Frederick I. and Grace A. Stokes Professor of Law as well as co-director of the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program, remembered first interacting with Bell through the Hays Program in the late 1960s, while Bell was still at the LDF. In 1972 Dorsen, the honoree of the 2001 Annual Survey, co-founded the Society of American Law Teachers, dedicated to increasing the diversity of the legal profession. He invited Bell, who had recently joined the Harvard faculty, to become a vice president.

“His sole concern was what he might do to help civil rights and civil liberties while fulfilling his duties at Harvard,” said Dorsen, adding, “In his position, he felt a special urgency about monitoring African Americans and other students who were making their way through the maze of legal education. These students often came from families that had not previously had a member who attended college. He considered his relations with students to be a deeply important responsibility and opportunity.”

NYU President John Sexton, the Annual Survey’s 2003 dedicatee, invited Bell to NYU Law in 1990 when Sexton was the Law School’s dean. He offered Bell as many one-year contracts as he wanted, telling him he could be the “Walter Alston of legal education,” after the winning Dodgers manager who refused to sign for more than a year at a time but stayed at his job for more than two decades. Sexton’s relationship with Bell dated back to 1976, when Bell taught him at Harvard Law.

“He had the capacity that the really great teachers have,” said Sexton, “to make you think about something completely differently from the way you thought about it before you began to work with him.... I’m not sure I’d be here today if it hadn’t been for his pushing me as a scholar.”

Gabrielle Prisco ’03, director of the Correctional Association of New York’s Juvenile Justice Project, first met Bell in the fall of her 1L year after Sexton’s teaching assistant found her sobbing in a Law School bathroom. When Prisco admitted to Sexton that she felt out of place, he introduced her to Bell, who invited her to sit in on his Constitutional Law class and to join his students and him afterward for their regular dinners. After graduating, Prisco returned to NYU Law as a Derrick Bell Fellow, teaching with Bell and engaging in scholarship on race and racism in American law.

Prisco quoted from a glowing evaluation of Bell written by the then-director of NYU’s Center for Teaching Excellence that praised his teaching method, which invited students to teach and learn from one another. She added, “I learned how to ground my thoughts on justice and on fairness in the framework of the Constitution and in legal thinking. I learned that from Derrick, but I also learned it from my colleagues in the classroom.... Derrick reminds us that the work we do in the world matters, that we are the problem-solvers of this time and place, and that much rests in our hands and in what we do with that.”

Like Sexton, Patricia Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, met Bell as a Harvard student, and was a critical race theory scholar and professor, she said, because of him.

“Derrick was the only reason I didn’t leave,” said Williams. “He made ideas come alive, he made the dry pages of treatises vivid. He never let us forget the human stories behind every tract, every suit, every appeal. He imbued legal education with a sense of purpose and responsibility, and we weren’t there for ourselves alone, but to live up to a calling and to be of service. And he helped me reframe the sense of isolation and intimidation I felt as causes, as precisely the reasons there was an obligation to stay the course.”

Williams underscored Bell’s pivotal role in legal scholarship: “When you understand Derrick Bell is the core of critical race theory, then you understand why it is so diverse, why to some degree it’s hard in legal terms, in methodological terms and ideological terms, to describe exactly what it is. It’s because the core of it is Derrick Bell, and Derrick Bell was heart and spirit, and the law probably has no language for that.... He was a great man precisely because there were no conditions upon his energies. He had a huge capacity for love, for justice, and for justice as a form of love. Like all the greatest teachers, his influence remains eternally generative.” 

Watch the full video of the event (1 h 26 min):

Posted on March 7, 2012