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Eugene Weekly : Memorial : 10.27.11

 

A Tribute to Derrick Bell

Civil rights activist and scholar remembered

By Anita Johnson

Photo by David Shankbone

The annual Derrick Bell lecture at New York University School of Law will begin at 6 pm Nov. 2. Ian F. Haney Lopez, the John H. Boalt professor of law at UC-Berkeley, will speak. The lecture is especially significant this year because the memorial service for Derrick Bell will begin the next evening at 6 pm in Riverside Memorial Church at the other end of Manhattan.

Born Nov. 6, 1930, son of a Pittsburgh garbage collector, Bell died Oct. 5. He was a famous civil rights advocate, legal scholar, author, speaker and role model for young Americans of all colors. As a young lawyer, he supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases in the South and led the legal fight for James Meredith to enter the University of Mississippi. He was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School, a huge accomplishment.

In tribute, I want to offer some insight into his nearly five years in Eugene (1980 to 1985) as dean of the UO School of Law. It was high adventure for Derrick and Jewel and their three sons, Derrick A. Bell III, Douglas Dubois Bell and Carter Robseson Bell, to move out west to Oregon. Because of contemporary children and other ties, our families became close friends.

Soon after he was hired, a prominent law faculty wife raised the question at a social gathering: Why would the UO hire a civil rights scholar when civil rights was such a minor part of the law school curriculum? Not a good omen for the Bell deanship at Oregon; I thought maybe the school should focus more on civil rights considering the Klan history in the state and the prominence of the issues in contemporary America.

Jewel was settled in a house on Lincoln Street only a short time before she marched into the office of the South Eugene High School principal to firmly suggest that student “slave auctions” should end. In those days students raised money by auctioning off “slaves” to do the bidding of their “owners.” A wise man, the principal agreed with her, immediately ending that tradition.

One autumn evening, Derrick and Jewel and my husband Art and I were leaving a fine little restaurant on west 13th Avenue when an angry white passenger shouted at us from the cab of a passing pickup, “Go home ... niggers.” We were so ashamed.

Another afternoon, Derrick, Jewel and I drove up the McKenzie to enjoy the river and dinner. A fan of fine cars, he was driving his Alfa Romeo. We stopped for gas, the only car waiting for service. The attendant was so slow that even I had time to pick up the body language: “How come a guy like you is driving a car like this?” Was I unfair to the attendant? I asked. But Derrick said it was a common reaction to the black guy and the Alfa.

When we stopped for dinner at a restaurant in Blue River, the service was even slower, especially frustrating when we were the only diners in the room. My mood was to leave no tip, but Derrick and Jewel left double the usual, suggesting to me that the waitress might learn from their generosity and friendliness.

These are only glimpses of one side of their lives in Eugene. All things considered, Jewel and the boys prospered, especially son Derrick who loved Duck athletics, returning here this summer for his 30th high school reunion. Calling this a “caring community,” Jewel dove into it by taking a job as a high-level administrator for minority affairs in the UO, chair of the Sponsors board, member of the Eugene Symphony board and more.

Derrick’s introduction to his deanship at a western public law school took place before he even moved into his office. The president’s staff invited him to Johnson Hall to meet with prominent members of the wood products industry who were demanding that the UO shut down the environmental law clinic. A compromise was crafted, and the clinic moved off campus, eventually growing into the Western Environmental Law Center, still flourishing in Oregon and beyond. 

One of his proudest accomplishments was beginning to build real alumni giving and support for the UO School of Law. That was before the powerful UO fundraising machine was in place.

He liked well-tailored suits, always looking slightly uncomfortable in the yellow and green sweaters he thought appropriate for game days. He became a serious jogger in Eugene, worked on his fine photography and enjoyed cooking for the family.

But he was restless by 1985. Other law schools and bigger ponds beckoned. When Dean Bell and some of the law faculty disagreed over the hiring of an Asian-American woman, he resigned, eventually returning to Harvard, which he left for the last time in 1990 over a similar minority hiring dispute. This time one of his supporters was a promising African-American student named Barack Obama.

Jewel Hairston Bell died in Boston in 1990. Derrick moved to New York to become a visiting professor at NYU Law School, a position he enjoyed for 11 years. In 1992 he married Janet Dewart, another smart, wise, capable woman working for social justice. Two UO scholarship funds, one to honor Jewel through minority student services, and another in Derrick’s name in the law school, were set up years ago. Both are managed by the UO Development Office.