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On Losing Legal Legend Derrick Bell

November 10, 2011 by  


By Nadia Ahmed

derrickbellOn October 5th, the law lost a monumental American, NYU Visiting Professor Derrick A. Bell. He was 80 years old when carcinoid cancer seized him. While news of his death may have been lost in the headlines because of the demise of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs the same day, Bell’s life deserves commemoration especially among Muslim Americans.

Bell was to social justice and constitutional law what Jobs was to Silicon Valley’s high tech industry and computer innovation. Bell was a rebel before the American Bar Association (ABA) ever began honoring recipients with the distinction of “Legal Rebel.” He was well-known for being the first African-American law professor with full tenure at Harvard Law School, but resigned in protest because of the lack of hiring of women of color. The New York Times reported that at a rally while a student at Harvard Law Barack Obama compared Professor Bell to the civil rights hero Rosa Parks.

At the beginning of his career, Thurgood Marshall recruited Bell to join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund after he left his position with U.S. Department of Justice because of his refusal to end his ties with the NAACP.  In 1966, Bell was named deputy director of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Afterwards, he would start teaching law. 

I had the great fortune of being able to meet Derrick Bell in 2001 as a result of a series of emails back and forth between us. I was supposed to be studying for the LSAT in the summer of 2001, instead I started reading Bell’s books which I saw sitting on the same shelf of the Seminole County Public Library’s Casselberry branch as the LSAT materials: Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protestor and Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. For someone who is naturally reticent, I resort to writing as a preferred mode of communication. Bell had also taken the time to contribute to my 9/11 anthology, Unveiling the Real Terrorist Mind. He helped me feel comfortable in my own skin.

Looking back to 9/11, Muslims were scared and some even afraid to even leave their homes. Muslim leaders were issuing fatwas for women to remove their headscarves in public out of fear for their safety. I was more astounded and confused by the North American Muslim community’s reaction. This was not the first time our community had come under attack and it surely would not have been the last. For me, 9/11 was a time more than any other to reassert our identities as Muslims.

In Professor Bell, I found someone who had walked the walk. He was also one of the most spiritual persons I had ever known, who had a deep commitment to religious value, an anomaly in higher education, especially within the law.

Initially, when I heard of his death, I was saddened, but at the same time I felt reawakened and reenergized. I remembered one of those occasions when I had to the chance to sit in on his class. On the blistering cold afternoon of February 4, 2002, I trotted up to the NYU Law school building and was told that I could not enter the building because my name was not on the list of approved visitors for that day. From my days in journalism, I knew how to slip by security. I walked slowly toward the side exit door and when the guard was distracted by other visitors, I darted up the stairs to find the Secret Service central because unknown to me President Bill Clinton was giving a talk at NYU Law that afternoon. The speech had just concluded so I stood on the side of the hallway as President Clinton walked by and greeted students. When I finally got to Professor Bell’s class, I heard some of the students joking that they had “gotten their tuition’s worth” because they “got to meet President Clinton.” I laughed inside that I, too, had been able to meet the President without the exorbitant cost of paying NYU Law tuition.

When I was accepted to the University of Florida Levin College of Law a few months later and somewhat hesitant to attend, Professor Bell encouraged me by saying that the battlegrounds for social justice and civil rights are in the South, but warned me that the racism only worsens the further I progress in my life in the law. My law school days and the year or so after I was admitted to the Florida Bar were pure and utter whatever.

In 2007, Professor Bell had mailed me a copy of his book, Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth.  And it is that book that serves as my blueprint for surmounting obstacles and advancing where life leads.

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