I have just learned that Derrick Bell has died at the age of eighty. I shall not try to recapitulate his important career. Check out the lengthy obituary in the NY TIMES today. Bell was a legal scholar, the godfather of Critical Race Theory, and a courageous fighter for racial justice throughout his long life. Perhaps his most famous moment, and one I have always loved for its delicious irony, was a "sit-in" he staged in his own office at Harvard Law School to protest Harvard's failure to give tenure to two young critical race theorists. Harvard Law School's faculty are notorious for their inaccessibility to students. Staging a sit-in in his own office was a brilliant way of giving the finger to his distinguished colleagues.
In 1990, I got to know Bell a bit by mail, though we never met. He had taken an unpaid leave from Harvard Law School to protest their hiring policies, and when I read about it, I sent him a supportive letter and a check for a thousand dollars to help tide him over the time without a regular salary. He wrote a lovely letter back, assuring me that he was ok financially, and turned the check over to a fund that had been established to honor his wife, who had very recently died.
His passing is a loss to the Academy, to African-Americans, and to all Americans. He will be missed.