We lost another great pioneer this week in addition to Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Steve Jobs. Professor Derrick A. Bell Jr. died Wednesday from carcinoid cancer at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, according to the New York Times. He was 80. Professor Bell was a legal scholar and the first tenured African American professor of Law at Harvard University. He worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund during the civil rights era and was recruited by Thurgood Marshall to oversee 300 school-desegregation cases, according to The HistoryMakers. Professor Bell was also an acclaimed author with numerous books including, Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth.
Here is his obituary that was published in the New York Times:
Mr. Bell was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law and later the first black dean of a law school that is not historically black. But he was perhaps better known for resigning from prestigious jobs than for accepting them.
In his 20s, while working at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, he was told to give up his membership in the N.A.A.C.P., which his superiors believed posed a conflict of interest. Instead, he quit the Justice Department, ignoring the advice of friends to try to change things from within.
Thirty years later, when he left Harvard Law School, he rejected similar advice. At the time, he said, his wife, Jewel Hairston Bell, asked him, “Why does it always have to be you?”
In “Ethical Ambition,” a memoir published in 2002, Mr. Bell wrote that his wife’s question trailed him afterward, as did another posed by his colleagues: “Who do you think you are?”
Addressing law students grappling with career decisions, he extolled what he called “a life of meaning and worth,” even though, he wrote, he sometimes alienated associates who saw his actions as “futile and foolish.”
We are grateful for the man that he was, the legacy he has left behind and the comtributions he made to the African American community. May he rest in eternal peace.