In Memoriam: Derrick Bell, 1930 - 2011

Professor Derrick BellDerrick Bell, a full-time visiting professor at NYU School of Law since 1990, passed away on the evening of October 5.

For more than two decades, the Law School community has been profoundly shaped by Bell’s unwavering passion for civil rights and community justice, and his leadership as a scholar, teacher, and activist. A devoted professor of constitutional law, Bell instilled in his students a deep sense of professional and ethical responsibility and encouraged them to confront complex issues about race and difference.

Bell wrote extensively about the progress of racial reform in the United States across a range of genres, from fiction to legal analysis to autobiography. He contributed key writings that helped form the critical race theory movement in the mid-seventies, and his casebook, Race, Racism and American Law is used widely in law schools across the country. He had also explored these issues as they relate to music in a book of essays and parables, and introduced the Bell Annual Gospel Choir Concert, now a long-standing and deeply moving tradition at NYU Law.

In addition to his far-reaching impact as a teacher and scholar, Bell championed the cause of civil rights outside the classroom. He leveraged his positions as the first tenured African American professor at Harvard Law School and the first African American dean of the University of Oregon School of Law to challenge law schools around the country to embrace diversity in their hiring practices. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1957, he worked with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, the only African American among thousands of lawyers. He left after two years when the government asked him to resign his membership of the NAACP and then went on to become first assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund under Thurgood Marshall, supervising more than 300 school desegregation cases in Mississippi.

Since 1995, he has enriched NYU Law's intellectual community by bringing prominent scholars to the annual Bell Lecture to discuss everything from racially tinged economics to post-racial challenges in the Obama era. His legacy will continue on November 2, 2011, when the Law School welcomes this year’s Bell lecturer, Ian Haney-López, John H. Boalt Professor of Law from the University of California Berkeley School of Law, to discuss contemporary racial-equality law.

On Tuesday, February 28, 2012, students will posthumously dedicate the 69th Volume of the NYU Annual Survey of American Law to Bell. Tributes will be given by Bell’s friends, colleagues, and peers, including NYU President John Sexton, who is dean emeritus and Benjamin F. Butler Professor of Law.

Bell is survived by his wife, Janet Dewart Bell, his three children, Derrick, Douglas and Carter, and three siblings. His first wife, Jewel Hairston Bell, died in 1990.

Bell was a beloved member of the NYU community who inspired countless scholars and faculty to stand up for their principles. He will be deeply missed, but his strong moral compass will continue to guide those he leaves behind.