Prof. Derrick Bell, a major figure in the civil rights movement and a full-time visiting professor at NYU Law for two decades, recently passed away. Learn more about his life and his work.
Several years ago, in an essay written shortly after Justice Brennan’s death, Professor Derrick Bell described how the justice sought to “push the boundaries of existing law” towards equality in spite of a hostile public and reluctant judiciary. Now, as we mourn the loss of Professor Bell last week, we must recognize and honor the lifetime that he spent doing the same.
Derrick Bell was a tireless civil rights scholar, teacher, and advocate and he will no doubt be remembered for his enormous contributions to both the legal academy and the profession. But he will also be remembered for the inspiration that his work offered to so many people, both lawyers and non-lawyers, including many of us here at the Brennan Center.
Professor Bell visited Yale during my first year of law school to deliver BLSA’s annual Black History Month lecture and, afterward, the handful of us who helped organize the event were fortunate enough to have dinner with him. The experience was then and remains now my fondest memory of law school. Hearing Professor Bell share stories from his incredible life and career was deeply inspirational for me as a young law student and aspiring civil rights advocate. I was particularly moved by the warmth and humor with which he spoke. Although I had always been a fan of Professor Bell’s writing—filled as it always was with such intelligent and pointed social criticism—I hadn’t anticipated, in my naïveté, that someone who wrote with such beautiful and righteous indignation might also be so kind, so loving, and so funny. More than anything else I have heard or read since that night, Professor Bell’s words have shaped the way that I approach public interest lawyering by reminding me that—however sappy or sentimental it might sound—our work as advocates must always be motivated, above all else, by love.