Derrick A. Bell: Pioneer of Critical Race Theory

Derrick Bell was a 1957 graduate of Pitt’s School of Law, where he served as associate editor in chief of the University of Pittsburgh Law Review. Bell was the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School and later one of the first Black deans of a law school that was not historically Black. He was a pioneer in the field of Critical Race Theory and a champion of race and gender diversity in the legal community.

Derrick Albert Bell, Jr., was born on November 6, 1930 to a working-call family in the Hill District, a historically Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA. He attended Schenley High School. Although he was offered a scholarship to Lincoln University, Bell could not attend due to insufficient financial aid. Instead, he chose to study at Duquesne University, becoming the first in his family to attend college. During his time at Duquesne University, Bell joined the ROTC. After graduating with a Bachelor's in 1952, he served in the U.S. Air Force in Korea for two years, one of which he spent in Korea.

Upon his return in 1954, Bell enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, where he earned an L.L.B. in 1957 as the only Black graduate of his class.

After graduation, he joined the United States Department of Justice in the Honor Graduate Recruitment Program with a recommendation from William P. Rogers, the United States associate attorney general. Driven by his passion for racial justice, he transferred to the Civil Rights Division, becoming one of few Black lawyers within the Justice Department at that time. Bell pioneered the creation of a casebook in law, delving into the law's intersection with race and racism. Additionally, he scrutinized how race and racism influenced law-making, challenging prevailing norms during an era when such connections were not widely acknowledged as legitimate.

Bell left the U.S. Department of Justice in 1959 after his superiors told him to relinquish his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People because they believed it posed a conflict of interest. When he returned home to Pittsburgh and joined the local chapter of the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall then recruited him to join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in 1960, where he supervised three hundred school desegregation cases. At the LDF, he was assigned to Mississippi, where he had to navigate a deeply entrenched culture of racism with great caution. During his work in Mississippi, he provided legal support to voting rights activists, Freedom Riders, and students, supporting James Meredith's efforts to gain admission to the University of Mississippi, despite Governor Ross Barnett's protests. Reflecting on this period, Bell remarked, "I learned a lot about evasiveness, and how racists could use a system to forestall equality...I also learned a lot riding those dusty roads and walking into those sullen hostile courts in Jackson, Mississippi. It just seems that unless something's pushed unless you litigate, nothing happens." Bell questioned the effectiveness of the integration approach taken in these cases. He observed that in many Southern communities, the court-ordered desegregation led to white flight, thus keeping the segregation of school. He later came to the conclusion that "racism is so deeply rooted in the makeup of American society that it has been able to reassert itself after each successive wave of reform aimed at eliminating it." In 1966, Bell became the deputy director of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Bell's academic teaching career started in 1967 at the Gould School of Law of the University of Southern California, where he served as the director of USC's Western Center on Law and Poverty in 1968. In 1969, Black students at Harvard Law School advocated for the hiring of a minority faculty member, leading to Derrick Bell's appointment as a lecturer by Derek Bok, who pledged that Bell would be "the first but not the last" Black hire. This appointment marked a significant moment, as in 1971, Bell made history as the first Black tenured professor at Harvard Law. During his tenure, Bell introduced a groundbreaking course in civil rights law, authored the acclaimed casebook Race, Racism and American Law, delving into the law's intersection with race and racism, scrutinizing how race and racism influenced law-making and challenging prevailing norms during an era when such connections were not widely acknowledged as legitimate, now a standard textbook in law schools nationwide. He ultimately resigned from Harvard in protest against the school's hiring practices, particularly its failure to include women of color among the faculty. In 1980, Bell became the first African American dean of the University of Oregon Law School, teaching a course using his casebook of the same name. In 1985, he resigned in protest after the university instructed him not to hire an Asian American woman for a faculty position. That candidate was Pat K. Chew, who is the Salmon Chaired Professor and Distinguished Faculty Scholar in Pitt’s School of Law. Bell returned to Harvard Law School but took an unpaid leave of absence in protest in 1990, vowing not to return until the school hired its first Black woman to join its tenured faculty. In 1992, Bell joined the faculty of New York University School of Law as a visiting professor. His “participatory learning” pedagogy—that learning is a shared experience between student and professor—empowered his students to learn the law and to teach the law to themselves and to one another.

In addition to his teaching, Bell was a celebrated author, known for his series of books featuring the fictional civil rights leader Geneva Crenshaw, including And We Are Not Saved and Faces at the Bottom of the Well. In 2002, he published Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth, sharing his views on achieving success with integrity. Bell's later work included the book Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. Throughout his career, Bell received numerous honors and awards, serving as a visiting professor of law at the New York University School of Law and as a Distinguished Lecturer and Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law during the 2005-06 academic year, while Janet Dewart Bell simultaneously held the position of Visiting Research Professor in the school.

Derrick Bell passed away on October 5, 2011, at the age of 80. His life was defined by his relentless pursuit of racial justice and equality in the legal profession, marked by a commitment to challenging systemic racism, promoting diversity in academia, and paving the way for future generations of scholars and activists. His pioneering work in Critical Race Theory and his advocacy for race and gender diversity in the legal community left a lasting impact on legal education and civil rights activism. Bell's legacy lives on through his influential writings, including his acclaimed casebook Race, Racism and American Law, and his fictional works that continue to inspire and provoke thought on issues of race and social justice. Derrick Bell's unwavering commitment to his principles and his fearless pursuit of justice serve as a testament to his enduring legacy as a scholar, activist, and trailblazer in the fight for equality.