DAVID BIANCULLI, host: Derrick Bell, a long-standing civil rights advocate and legal scholar, died Wednesday in Manhattan of cancer. He was 80 years old. Derrick Bell was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School, and his 1973 book, "Race, Racism and American Law," became and remains a staple at law schools nationwide.
Yet, as The New York Times put in his obituary, Derrick Bell quote "was perhaps better known for resigning from prestigious jobs than for accepting them," unquote. As a young man, he quit the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department rather than obey an order to resign from the NAACP. And during his second stint at Harvard in 1990, he took an unpaid leave of absence and vowed not to return until the school added a black woman to its tenured faculty.
Terry Gross spoke with Derrick Bell in 1992, two years into his protest against Harvard, and six years before Harvard Law School would finally grant tenure to a female black professor.
TERRY GROSS, host: Now you left Harvard on a leave without pay, saying that you wouldn't return until an African-American woman was given tenure at the law school.
DERRICK BELL: Yeah.
GROSS: And after two years of your leave without pay, you were dismissed by Harvard because their policy is of a maximum two-year leave.
GROSS: Let me ask you, since you think it's very important that African-American women students have African-American women teachers, as an African-American male professor what do you feel that you offer your African-American students that your white counterpart couldn't provide?
BELL: Yeah. I teach constitutional law a course on the Supreme Court and one on civil rights. But in all my courses, I really have to teach the basic messages of my life – and that is that the rewards, the satisfactions, are not in being partner or making a million dollars, but in recognizing evils, recognizing injustices and standing up and speaking out about them even in absolutely losing situations where you know it's not going to bring about any change - that there are intangible rewards to the spirit that make that worthwhile.
And while I certainly miss my position at Harvard - I worked very hard for it, and people tell me I should have stayed and worked from within - in some ways, I am grateful for the opportunity to, in so public a way, practice what I have preached for so long. Because if only a few students get that message, then those few students - to the extent that they are able to practice it in their own lives - will receive the kind of spiritual soul-satisfying dividends that I think I've received, and make me believe that that's really an important thing of what life is all about.
GROSS: You can make the argument that your method of dealing with this by taking the lead was actually a self-defeating way of handling it, because now the students don't have you there either.
BELL: That's right. But there are five other black men, all very capable. And I think that some of them will be more willing to step into the role that I was playing now that I'm not there, that my presence tended to perhaps stifle some of their development as leaders.
I learned this hard lesson as a civil rights lawyer, when during the '60s I would fly into town and meet with several groups, and take down all the information about their problems and the discrimination in the schools or in the public accommodations, and would fly back to New York and prepare the complaints and get them filed and handle the cases. And I thought that – I tell you – I thought that my place in heaven was assured.
But looking back on it, I see that I, by my flying in, was really usurping the leadership potential of many local people who, even after I won the case, if they didn't organize and inform their constituencies of what had been done through the courts, nothing would change. So that I am much more humble with regard to my role today than I was as a young civil rights lawyer.
GROSS: Harvard Law School wasn't the first place that you quit in protest. In 1959, you were working in the Justice Department and you were told to drop your membership in the NAACP.
BELL: Because it was a conflict of interest. I was in the new Civil Rights Division and that seemed strange to me, and I checked with a number of friends in important places and almost to a person they told me stay and work from within. And I've always been a little suspect of that argument. It's very comfortable and convenient, but I'm not sure that it's necessarily accurate.
In any event, I decided that I would not resign my membership, and I would wait for them to fire me, which they didn't. They simply moved me out of my office into the hall and started to give me kind of busywork, which was a message that maybe I should leave, and that's what I did.
But in that instance as in so many others, I went back to my hometown, Pittsburgh, and began working as the executive director of NAACP, and I learned long years later that one of the people I had gone to for advice, Bill Hastie, who was the first black federal judge, had gone to Thurgood Marshall, his longtime friend, and told him about my situation. So that when Thurgood came through Pittsburgh speaking - he was then general counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund - he said: boy, what's a lawyer doing in a non-lawyer job? And I tried to explain. He wasn't even listening. He said, come on, join me in New York, which I did posthaste.
Well, that was a marvelous experience, working with the Legal Defense Fund in the early '60s, and it's an experience I wouldn't have gotten had I not done what I thought was right with regard to my NAACP membership with the Justice Department.
BIANCULLI: Law professor and civil rights activist, Derrick Bell, speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. He died Wednesday at age 80.
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