Thursday, October 06, 2011

Remembering Derrick Bell

Mary L. Dudziak

The legal academy has lost a giant, with the death yesterday of Derrick Bell, Visiting Professor at New York University.  Tomiko Brown-Nagin put it this way on the Legal History Blog:
Bell's legacy in the law is long and deep. Bell never trained professionally as a historian; yet his scholarship reflected great historical consciousness and insight. It's fair to say, I think, that every historian of the civil rights era and every scholar of race and the law is indebted to Professor Bell. 
He was a person of singular importance in American legal education -- from his own barrier-breaking role as the first African American tenured professor at Harvard Law School, to his public and behind-the-scenes role mentoring so many who followed after him. Bell has left a legacy in his own work, and in the work of so many others who were inspired and encouraged by him. He would sometimes offer words of support to people he did not know -- like a very junior untenured law professor at Iowa who sent him an unpublished paper. His simple and kind letter to me many years ago helped me stand my ground with my first significant article, when some readers did not want to hear that archival records complicated and challenged a "simple justice" narrative of civil rights reform.

Derrick Bell has left an important paper trail so that the next generation can explore social change during his era, and his own  role in transforming American legal education. His extraordinary papers have been open for some time at NYU. Here's a post describing what you can find there.

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