Editor’s note: On Wednesday, Breitbart.com and Fox News’ Sean Hannity began circulating a 1990 news video of President Obama at a Harvard Law School rally in support of diversity in hiring of tenured professors. Hannity and others on the right have argued the video is controversial because of the figure at the center of the rally—Harvard’s famous law professor Derrick Bell, who passed last year. Bell is considered by many to be among the intellectual fathers of the critical study of race, certainly within American law.
As rightwing media attempts to smear Bell—as they did Shirley Sherrod—we invited one of Bell’s students from that 1990 academic year, who was also present at the diversity rally, to reflect on the professor’s legacy. As City University of New York law professor and Colorlines.com board member Victor Goode put it, “Derrick’s literally got a few thousand students out there, all lawyers who will stand up.” Are you among them? Did Professor Bell’s work touch your life or your work? Don’t be silent. Chime in with your own reflections, in the comments below.
David Hill: Reflections on My Professor
One of the highlights of my time at Harvard Law School was Professor Derrick Bell’s Constitutional Law course during my second year. And I participated in many of the protests in support of greater faculty diversity, including the one in support of Professor Bell that has been making the rounds on social media in the past few days.
Professor Bell was a real live hero in our midst. Here was a man who had quit working for the Justice Department in when asked to resign his membership in the NAACP. Here was a lawyer who had worked with the luminaries of the legal battles for civil rights in America: Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley and Robert Carter, among others. Who had suffered the indignity of having judges in southern courtrooms turn their backs on him but still continued to zealously represent his clients. Professor Bell achieved a pinnacle of legal academia when he became the first African-American tenured professor at Harvard Law School but he gave it up twice (he first left HLS in the early 1970s in protest) to stand on principle. While many of us were trying to figure out which high paying law firm job we would take coming out of HLS, here was a man who sacrificed his tenured six figure salaried position to agitate for a more inclusive, useful educational experience for all of us. What you see in the faces of my fellow students in the video clips of that 1990 rally was the profound admiration and respect for a man who stood tall, put his beliefs into actions and sacrificed much for doing so.
Professor Bell was a first rate scholar and teacher. He published a seminal textbook on Race, Racism and American Law. He was an active and eloquent proponent of critical race theory. By the time I was fortunate enough to be in his class, he was beyond teaching in typical HLS style—strict adherence to a specified textbook, lectures, the use of the Socratic method and reliance on a single semester ending exam. Instead, Professor Bell relied upon teaching through storytelling, group projects AND a written exam, all aspects of course work counting more or less equally. I can still recall the powerful case he made for hate speech not being covered by the First Amendment when words that must be tolerated in the public square, such as the “N” word, are directed at a specific, targeted individual such as when scrawled on a dorm room door. His teaching style was not for everyone, but it worked for me and for many others.
Nor was there anything radical about his views. Yes, he powerfully challenged the notion that all judges are neutral arbiters of objectively developed bodies of law, insisting instead that judges bring to bear on every case their backgrounds and life experiences. Yes, he was a tireless advocate for faculty diversity. But he wasn’t advocating armed revolution, the overthrow of the United States government, or even the nullification of existing law. Then, as now, the concept that there should be representatives of diverse viewpoints based on differing life experiences is well worth fighting for.
I am beyond saddened by the cheap efforts to score political points trying to sully the reputation of a man who inspired so much admiration and who merely wanted Harvard Law School to be a better and more inclusive place for everyone of us, particularly for the 107 African-American women who were students there in 1990.
David Hill graduated with Honors from Harvard Law School in 1991.