Derrick Albert Bell Jr. should be as well-known as Thurgood Marshall. He was a lawyer, civil rights activist, and professor. In 1971, he became the first tenured Black professor of Law at Harvard Law School. From his reputation alone, Professor Bell would be an instructor I would have stood in line to sign up for any class he taught.
As it was, I was introduced to Bell’s work by one of my professors, Bill Webber, during graduate school. Webber, President Emeritus of New York Theological Seminary would, once he thought he had taken the measure of you, recommend two books, one for the fall and the other for the spring semester. Both of my book recommendations were written by Bell, and Webber is the only white male who truly saw some of my “measure.”
Bell was the only Black graduate of his 1957 law class at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Shortly after law school, Bell was working for the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department. He was asked to resign his membership in the NAACP under the rationale that his objectivity, and the objectivity of the division, might be compromised. Bell left the Justice Department rather than give up his NAACP membership. Compare this with Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who was a member of the Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1 in Birmingham, AL. Black “resigned” from the Klan in 1925. In 1937, after Black was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was reported that he had been given a “grand passport” in 1926, granting him life membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
So, today, I recommend the two books by Bell I read in 1993 and 1994, respectively: And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, and, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. Note that Bell, considered the Godfather of Critical Race Theory, is quoted as having said: “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.” Think President Barack Obama’s successor, No 45, and his white nationalist platform.
Now, I am interested in what Bell might have said or wrote about Clarence Thomas when he was appointed to the High Court. Thomas probably doesn’t realize it, but his face is truly at the bottom of the well.