In Derrick Bell Lecture, Kenneth Mack discusses law and racial violence

On November 6, Kenneth Mack, Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law and Affiliate Professor of History at Harvard University, presented the 24th annual Derrick Bell Lecture on Race in American Society. A former student of Bell’s, Mack delivered a talk on “Race, Violence, and the Word: Living in Uncertain Times,” addressing the relationship between law, race, and violence in the years since the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri—and tracing the development of that relationship over the course of US history.

Vincent Southerland, Trevor Morrison, Kenneth W Mack, Janet Dewart Bell, Deborah Archer
Vincent Southerland, Trevor Morrison, Kenneth Mack, Janet Dewart Bell, Deborah Archer

The Derrick Bell Lecture series is hosted by the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law—a center that, Dean Trevor Morrison noted in his introductory remarks, helps carry forward the late Professor Derrick Bell’s work at NYU Law. Originally conceived by Bell’s wife, Janet Dewart Bell, as a gift for his 65th birthday, the annual lecture continues to be a celebration of Bell’s life and work, and this year it took place in Greenberg Lounge on his birthday. Attendees heard music from the First Presbyterian Church Choir of Brooklyn and, as is a yearly tradition, joined in to sing the Stevie Wonder version of “Happy Birthday.” This year’s event was also dedicated to Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, who was the inaugural Bell lecturer.

Kenneth W Mack speaking at podium
Kenneth Mack

In his lecture, Mack revisited the Supreme Court’s 1871 case Blyew v. the United States, which he described as being “usually overlooked.” Two white men accused of murdering several members of a black family in Kentucky were tried and convicted in federal court under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 rather than in state court; Kentucky law at the time barred black people from testifying in court in cases involving white people, and would have blocked statements from the survivors of the attack. The Supreme Court, however, found that the federal court lacked jurisdiction, holding that the protections of the Civil Rights Act did not apply to testimony from the witnesses who were black.

“The decision in Blyew is essentially the Supreme Court’s first opportunity to confront the morality of racial violence after the Civil War, and what it did was very clear,” Mack said. “It ruled that laws were going to be of limited use in prosecuting state violence…. What everybody knew was that the court was going out of its way to deny access to federal law to victims of racial violence, but what it also was doing is hiding the morality of that decision, a decision to consign African Americans in the South to rampant state violence behind the facade of federalism.” 

Posted December 18, 2019