'Stand Up, Speak Out,' Derrick Bell Told Law Students

Oct 7, 2011

Derrick Bell, a long-standing civil-rights advocate and legal scholar, died Wednesday in Manhattan of carcinoid cancer. He was 80 years old. Bell was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School, and his 1973 book, Race, Racism and American Law, became and remains a staple at law schools nationwide.

But as The New York Times noted in his obituary, Bell "was perhaps better known for resigning from prestigious jobs than for accepting them." As a young man, he quit the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department rather than obey an order to resign from the NAACP. Later, he resigned as dean of the University of Oregon school of Law when that school failed to offer a faculty position to an Asian-American woman. And during his second stint at Harvard, in 1990, he took an unpaid leave of absence and vowed not to return until the school added a black female to its tenured faculty.

Eventually, Harvard refused to extend his leave; Bell, by then, was teaching at New York University School of Law, where he taught until his death. Fresh Air's Terry Gross spoke with Bell in 1992, two years into his protest against Harvard — and six years before Harvard Law School would finally grant tenure to a female black professor. Excerpts from that conversation are below.

Interview Highlights

On leaving his position at Harvard, and the message he hopes it sends to his students:

"In all my courses, I really have to teach the basic messages of my life ... that the rewards, the satisfactions, are not in being partner or making a million dollars, but in recognizing evils, recognizing injustices and standing up and speaking out about them even in absolutely losing situations where you know it's not going to bring about any change; that there are intangible rewards to the spirit that make that worthwhile.

"While I certainly miss my position at Harvard, I worked very hard for it, and people tell me I should have stayed and worked from within. In some ways, I am grateful for the opportunity to, in so public a way, practice what I have preached for so long. Because if only a few students get that message, then those few students — to the extent that they are able to practice it in their own lives — will receive the kind of spiritual soul-satisfying dividends that I think I've received."

On knowing when to step aside so others can lead:

"I think that some of [the other African-American men at Harvard Law] will be more willing to step into the role that I was playing now that I'm not there ... My presence tended to perhaps stifle some of their development as leaders.

"I learned this hard lesson as a civil rights lawyer, when during the '60s I would fly into town and meet with several groups, and take down all the information about their problems and the discrimination and the schools and the public accommodations, and fly back to New York and prepare the complaints and get them filed and handle the cases ... And I thought that my place in heaven was assured. But looking back on it, I see that ... my flying in was really usurping the leadership potential of many local people who, even after I won the case, if they didn't organize and inform their constituencies of what had been done through the courts, nothing would change. So that I am much more humble with regard to my role today than I was as a young civil rights lawyer."

On resigning from the Department of Justice in 1959, after being told to give up his NAACP membership:

"[My NAACP membership] was a 'conflict of interest' — I was in a new civil rights division — and that seemed strange to me, and I checked with a number of friends in important places and ... they told me stay and 'work from within.' I've always been a little suspect of that argument. It's very comfortable and convenient but I'm not sure it's necessarily accurate.

"... I decided that I would not resign my membership, and I would wait for them to fire me — which they didn't. They simply moved me out of my office into the hall and started to give me kind of busy work which was a message that maybe I should leave, and that's what I did.

On how following his instinct paid off:

"In that instance, and so many others, I went back to my hometown, Pittsburgh, and began working as the Executive Director of NAACP, and I learned long years later, that one of the people I had gone to for advice, Bill Hastie ... the first black federal judge, had gone to Thurgood Marshall, his long-time friend, and told him about my situation. So that when Thurgood came through Pittsburgh speaking, he was then General Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He said: 'Boy, what's a lawyer doing in a non-lawyer job?' And I tried to explain, he wasn't even listening, he said, 'Come on join me, in New York.' Which I did post-haste.

"Well, that was a marvelous experience, working with the Legal Defense Fund in the early '60s, and it's an experience I wouldn't have gotten had I not done what I thought was right with regard to my NAACP membership with the Justice Department.

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