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Derrick Bell
An era is ending. But like all those things that end, there will always be new beginnings.

It is often painful to accept that many of the voices that have been raised for decades in the seemingly endless battles in our nation for civil rights and racial justice will fall silent in death. But their work and words live on and so younger folk will pick up the torch and "march on till victory is won."

Last week we lost two of those mighty soldiers in the battle for justice and equality. It is incumbent upon all of us to not just mourn their passing, and offer words of consolation to their family, friends and loved ones; we must continue the struggle, and in doing so honor them and ourselves.  

It is important for those who did not know their work nor their words to do so.

I speak of the passing of Derrick Bell, and Fred Shuttlesworth, a legal scholar and a reverend.

Both were men of faith in the rightness of their chosen paths to move us farther down the road away from from racism and its ugly coils, toward a future that neither lived to see, just as many of us will never live to see the dawning of an America without racial divisions.

We would do well to revisit their life's work, and to know them by their words and deeds.

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

The younger of the two men, Professor Bell was born on Nov. 6, 1930, in Pittsburgh, PA. Rev. Shuttlesworth was born March 18, 1922, in Meigs, Alabama. One was from a hardcore northern area where race and racism were forged in steel mills. The other was from the black belt south with its slave plantation legacy.  

Both men would help shape our history and our future. Bell would become one of the founders of Critical Race Theory.

Appearing in US law schools in the mid- to late 1980s, Critical Race Theory inherited many of its political and intellectual commitments from civil rights scholarship and Critical Legal Studies, even as the movement departed significantly from both. Scholars like Derrick Bell applauded the focus of civil rights scholarship on race, but were deeply critical of civil rights scholars' commitment to colorblindness and their focus on intentional discrimination, rather than a broader focus on the conditions of racial inequality

Shuttlesworth would confront racists like Bull Connor
and vow to "kill segregation or be killed by it."

Both men were fired by deep faith. Both were Christians. Shuttlesworth would challenge church leaders, and Bell would challenge white Christians.

Shuttlesworth was a black Baptist pastor in Birmingham. He had grown up there in a rural, black community on the outskirts of a town called Oxmoor. After high school, he was educated in a small unaccredited Bible academy in Mobile called Cedar Grove, and after that at the black Baptist Selma University. His first pastorate was First Baptist Church (Colored) in Selma, where he and his authoritarian ways quickly ran afoul of certain powerful deacons. In 1953, he became the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, where his civic activities preceded the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. to the pastorate of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. After the state of Alabama outlawed the NAACP in May 1956, he became the founder and president of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), one of the original officers of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); and by 1963, he became, in King's words, "one of the nation's most courageous freedom fighters."

Listen to Rev. Shuttlesworth speak on his vision of America's future, the church, the disparity of wealth, the "terrorism" of poverty, and his thoughts on where we are heading-during an interview with the visionary project during the Bush administration.

Bell often lectured on race and religion. George H. Taylor, who co-taught a seminar on the topic of Race, Religion, and Law during the fall of 2006 at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote of his conversations with Bell, and reports in a journal article in University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class, these words from Bell:
In my writing, I have focused on the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of racism, suggesting its permanence because of the social stability it provides in a system that contains great disparities in income and wealth... . But I want to raise ... the possibility of a deeper foundation growing out of an undeniable fact. Most racists are also Christians.

Taylor goes on to explore this statement:

For contemporary liberals, including many - White or Black - in the mainstream civil rights movement, the persistence of racism is a source of significant puzzlement. The assumption was one of evolutionary progress - perhaps slow, likely hard-fought - toward racial equality. Bell's work testifies to the failure of that liberal vision: we are now a country, for example, with greater segregated education than three decades ago.  Bell's view, as already noted, is that religion and theology may help us understand why the liberal vision has failed.

Derrick Bell's writings attend the historical evidence of doors once opened being closed. Rights are important - Blacks "cry out in petition and prayer for the light of racial justice"  - but again and again expectations are dashed.

Even if values need institutionalization, Bell focuses attention on the way these values provide a vantage point from which to criticize law's failure to incorporate them. For Bell, religion provides nourishment not only to push for legal change but to withstand and critique the law's failure to effect this change. "We're a race of Jeremiahs," Bell writes, "calling for the nation to repent.

Shuttleworth's faith and civil rights activism has been explored in depth by his biographer Andrew M. Manis, author of A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.

In his article "Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth: unsung hero of the civil rights movement" he speaks of his faith-driven fire:

Perhaps more than anyone in the entire civil rights movement, Fred Shuttlesworth embodied this fiery, "combative spirituality."  His life reveals the development of a charismatic and confrontational personality who withstood and often created considerable conflict in all his important relationships and contexts--family, segregated southern society, his churches, and the civil rights movement. Shuttlesworth's combustible persona waxed hot against those he saw as enemies of righteousness and justice, attracting true believers to its incandescence. Lit in an impoverished and rural southern home, fueled in the hearth of the African-American church, Fred Shuttlesworth's fiery and combative spirituality flamed most dramatically in its encounter with Birmingham and Bull Connor.

Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania , writes of Shuttlesworth's unswerving commitment and bravery:

Most of the remembrances about Shuttlesworth highlight his relationship to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his work in Birmingham, and the non-invitation to King’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1964. But Shuttlesworth should also be remembered for being the one, in a time of non-violent protest, to give up his body regularly to violence. He survived a house bombing in 1956; a beating with bike chains by the KKK in 1957 when he tried to enroll his children in a white school; and being beaten into unconsciousness—two times. He was arrested 30 to 40 times by his own account, but who can count when you’ve been hosed down, beaten, and wished dead by Bull Connor. Still, Shuttlesworth kept on keeping on.

Many do not realize that Shuttlesworth’s leadership of the Birmingham movement was done “on the road.” He moved his family in 1961 to Cincinnati to take a pastorate, but kept returning to Birmingham to lead the marches and sit in there. Shuttlesworth’s organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, joined with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to push a direct action campaign against segregation in Birmingham, which included store boycotts during the Easter season. It was during this campaign that MLK was jailed and wrote his famous “Letter to Birmingham Jail” in April of 1963.

Many remember MLK’s letter, but it was Shuttlesworth who, hit with the full force of a fire hose, led children on a march in downtown Birmingham during the Children’s Crusade in May, 1963—that was a real badge of courage. While recovering in the hospital, store owners sought a moratorium on street protests, and King along with some other local leaders told the store owners and governmental officials that he would accept the compromise and stop the demonstrations. Shuttlesworth wasn’t having it. He said “Go ahead and call it off.… When I see it on TV, that you have called it off, I will get up out of this, my sickbed, with what little ounce of strength I have, and lead them back into the street. And your name’ll be Mud.” Strong, assertive, and no nonsense, Shuttlesworth represented the tightly coiled spring of the Civil Rights movement: Everyone knew Shuttlesworth would have to be beat down hard to get him to turn around.

Bell's faith and principled commitment to justice and the law would be put to the test in 1959


Born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Bell received an A.B. from Duquesne University in 1952 and an LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1957. After graduation, and after a recommendation from then United States Associate Attorney General William Rogers, Bell took a position with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. He was the only Black person working for the Justice Department at the time. In 1959, the government asked him to resign his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) because it was thought that his objectivity, and that of the department, might be compromised or called into question. Bell quit rather than give up his NAACP membership.

Bell would go on to teach at Harvard, and while there, he wrote the seminal textbook Race, racism, and American law, now in its sixth edition. While there, he would challenge the system and Harvard, over a number of issues including their hiring practices, which led then student Barack Obama to compare him to Rosa Parks.

The New York Times reports:

Professor Bell, soft-spoken and erudite, was “not confrontational by nature,” he wrote. But he attacked both conservative and liberal beliefs. In 1992, he told The New York Times that black Americans were more subjugated than at any time since slavery. And he wrote that in light of the often violent struggle that resulted from the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, things might have worked out better if the court had instead ordered that both races be provided with truly equivalent schools.

President Obama has also spoken out about the passing of Rev Shuttlesworth.

"Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth today.

As one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Reverend Shuttlesworth dedicated his life to advancing the cause of justice for all Americans.

He was a testament to the strength of the human spirit. And today we stand on his shoulders, and the shoulders of all those who marched and sat and lifted their voices to help perfect our union.

I will never forget having the opportunity several years ago to push Reverend Shuttlesworth in his wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus Bridge -- a symbol of the sacrifices that he and so many others made in the name of equality.

America owes Reverend Shuttlesworth a debt of gratitude, and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Sephira, and their family, friends and loved ones."

Bell commented about Obama's election to the nation's highest office, and what that might mean for black Americans:

In both rhetoric and policy proposals, Mr. Obama addressed issues that disproportionately affect African-Americans -- such as unemployment and poverty -- in a way that acknowledged that many whites face these same issues, said Mr. Bell, who grew up in Pittsburgh's Hill District and was the first black tenured professor at Harvard Law School.

"The way to make progress for blacks is to recognize that the problems that blacks are having with jobs ... are dramatically the same problems that white folks have," said Mr. Bell. "To say that you're trying to do something about the lack of health care in this country, it's not a black issue, it's not a white issue, it's an American one. ... Obama has picked up on that."

To understand Bell, one needs to read his work. This is not a comprehensive bibliography, but it should give you a better idea of the man and his legacy, starting with And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest For Racial Justice.

H. Gregory Barksdale, in a review in the Boston College Third World Law Journal, writes:

Bell analyzes the struggle of Black Americans to achieve racial, political, social and economic equality from a historical perspective. From the outset of the book Bell proffers that white society rarely embraces any interpretation of United States history which does not have as its basic premise the supremacy of the white race. One of the greatest benefits of And We Are Not Saved is that Bell expands the minds of his readers by exposing them to a nontraditional interpretation of United States history - a Black construction. In And We Are Not Saved, Bell, based upon his reading of history, argues that the civil rights strategies which Blacks have continuously adhered to have been ineffectual in ending racial discrimination. Bell insists that a new strategy must be adopted, an agenda which builds a coalition of natural allies, Blacks, whites and other racial minorities who suffer similar economic and political persecution.

Stripped to its essence, And We Are Not Saved is a challenge to individuals who have been intimately connected with the civil rights movement to assess the benefits of specific strategies. And We Are Not Saved is more than just a work of historical interpretation. Bell carries his analysis of traditional civil rights strategies much further
by asking difficult questions about the strategies' successes and failures and by offering some novel answers to the questions.

Bell also took a principled feminist position, demanding the hire of minority female faculty at Harvard.

"From the glass ceilings of business to the straw floors of academia there is always a reason not to pay or promote a Black woman."

"There is still evidence of discrimination in our society against minorities and women."

"What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."

In the spring of 1969, one hundred and fifty-two years since its founding in 1817, Harvard Law School hired its first African-American law professor, Derrick A. Bell, Jr. He accepted the offer from then-Dean Derek Bok with the explicit understanding that he would be the first, but not the last black person to be hired. After twenty years, the law faculty included only six African-Americans, 5 all male. Vowing that he would not teach at Harvard until it hired a minority woman, Bell took a one-year unpaid leave of absence in 1990, which he extended into a second year as a visiting professor at New York University School of Law. At the end of his two year protest, the situation at Harvard was unresolved. The school had invited two highly regarded and accomplished African-American women to teach in a visiting capacity, later deeming neither fit to receive an offer of a tenured position. Consequently Bell continued his solo boycott and declined to return to his home institution.

He did not write only law books and non-fiction. One of my favorites is his visionary fiction, in a selection of short stories, Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism.

A New York Times book reviewer wrote:

Mr. Bell does not hold out hope for success in objectively measurable terms. Rather, he says -- putting the words in the mouth of a white female guerrilla fighter for black survival in one of the fables -- "there is satisfaction in the struggle itself," a "salvation through struggle."

In this starkly existentialist vision, a commitment to pressing on in the face of absurdity, Derrick Bell draws as much from Albert Camus as from Martin Luther King. In an epilogue, constructed as a letter to Geneva Crenshaw, he writes: "We yearn that our civil rights work will be crowned with success, but what we really want -- want even more than success -- is meaning. . . . This engagement and commitment is what black people have had to do since slavery: making something out of nothing."

Whether on picket lines or in boycotts, in a pulpit or behind a lectern, both of these men made their mark on history. They will be mourned and celebrated, but not forgotten, for we stand on the shoulders of the ancestors and they are now among them.  

In their names, and the names of all those we will never know-we will "march on, till victory is won."

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Oct 09, 2011 at 08:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Black Kos community, Street Prophets , and Moose On The Loose.

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