The town of Harmony, Mississippi, which owes its origins to a small number of formerly enslaved Black people who bought land from former slaveholders after the Civil War, is nestled in Leake County, a perfectly square allotment in the center of the state. According to local lore, Harmony, which was previously called Galilee, was renamed in the early nineteen-twenties, after a Black resident who had contributed money to help build the town’s school said, upon its completion, “Now let us live and work in harmony.” This story perhaps explains why, nearly four decades later, when a white school board closed the school, it was interpreted as an attack on the heart of the Black community. Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist from the South, had funded five thousand Black schools starting in 1912. Rosenwald’s foundation provided the seed money, and community members constructed the building themselves by hand. By the sixties, many of the structures were decrepit, a reflection of the South’s ongoing disregard for Black education. The Harmony school was still a source of pride for the community. It provided a quality education to its students and was a symbol of the community’s pride. The local chapter of N.A.A.C.P was formed in 1961 after the battle.
That year, Winson Hudson, the chapter’s vice-president, working with local Black families, contacted various people in the civil-rights movement, and eventually spoke to Derrick Bell, a young attorney with the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City. Bell later wrote, in the foreword to Hudson’s memoir, “Mississippi Harmony,” that his colleagues had been astonished to learn that her purpose was to reopen the Rosenwald school. He said he told her, “Our crusade was not to save segregated schools, but to eliminate them.” He added that, if people in Harmony were interested in enforcing integration, the L.D.F., as it is known, could help.
Hudson eventually accepted Bell’s offer, and in 1964 the L.D.F. won Hudson v. Leake County School Board (Winson Hudson’s school-age niece Diane was the plaintiff), which mandated that the board comply with desegregation. Harmony’s students were enrolled in a white school in the county. Bell began to doubt the validity of the case as well as the drive for integration. Throughout the South, such rulings sparked white flight from the public schools and the creation of private “segregation academies,” which meant that Black students still attended institutions that were effectively separate. Years later, after Hudson’s victory had become part of civil-rights history, she and Bell met at a conference and he told her, “I wonder whether I gave you the right advice.” Hudson replied that she did, too.
Bell spent the second half his career as an academic. He realized that landmark civil-rights cases had limited practical impact and that Bell was a better academic than he was. Unsettling conclusions were drawn by Bell: Racism is so deeply rooted that it has been able, despite every successive wave of reform designed to eradicate it. He began to assert that racism is permanent. His ideas became the basis of critical race theory, a body and type of thought that was popularized in the nineteen-eighties. After more than a quarter of a century, there is an extensive academic field of literature cataloguing C.R.T.’s insights into the contradictions of antidiscrimination law and the complexities of legal advocacy for social justice.
For the past several months, however, conservatives have been waging war on a wide-ranging set of claims that they wrongly ascribe to critical race theory, while barely mentioning the body of scholarship behind it or even Bell’s name. As Christopher F. Rufo, an activist who launched the recent crusade, said on Twitter, the goal from the start was to distort the idea into an absurdist touchstone. “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” He wrote. C.R.T. was thus defined. C.R.T. has been defined as Black supremacist racism, false history and the horrible apotheosis or wokeness. Patricia Williams is one of the leading scholars of C.R.T. canon, refers to the ongoing mischaracterization as “definitional theft.”
Vinay Harpalani, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, who took a constitutional-law class that Bell taught at New York University in 2008, remembers his creating a climate of intellectual tolerance. “There were conservative white male students who got along very well with Professor Bell, because he respected their opinion,” Harpalani said that. “The irony of the conservative attack is that he was more respectful of conservative students and giving conservatives a voice than anyone.” Sarah Lustbader, a public defender based in New York City who was a teaching assistant for Bell’s constitutional-law class in 2010, has a similar recollection. “When people fear critical race theory, it stems from this idea that their children will be indoctrinated somehow. But Bell’s class was the least indoctrinated class I took in law school,” She said. “We got the most freedom in that class to reach our own conclusions without judgment, as long as they were good-faith arguments and well argued and reasonable.”
The controversy has been exploited by Republican lawmakers however. In June, Governor Greg Abbott, of Texas, signed a bill that restricts teaching about race in the state’s public schools. Similar legislation was introduced in Arizona and Tennessee, Idaho, New Hampshire, South Carolina, South Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Idaho, New Hampshire, South Carolina, South Carolina, South Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, and Tennessee. All of the outrage, and the reaction to it, is a confirmation of the arguments Bell made. After George Floyd’s murder, Americans began to confront the history of racism in America in large numbers last year. This was known as a reckoning. Bell, who was eighty years old, would have been less focused on the fact that white politicians responded in 2011 by limiting discussions of race in schools, than the larger effort they made to strengthen the political structures that are disadvantageous to African Americans. C.R.T. is another irony. has become a fixation of conservatives despite the fact that some of its sharpest critiques were directed at the ultimate failings of liberalism, beginning with Bell’s own early involvement with one of its most heralded achievements.
In May, 1954, when the Supreme Court struck down legally mandated racial segregation in public schools, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the decision was instantly recognized as a watershed in the nation’s history. A legal team representing the N.A.A.C.P. Thurgood Marshall led Legal Defense and Educational Fund. They argued that segregation violated Section 14 of the Fourteenth Amendment by inflicting psychological damage on Black children. Chief Justice Earl Warren made an unusual move of convincing the other Justices that they reach a consensus so that their rulings would be deemed unanimous. Many saw the decision as the opening salvo in the modern civil-rights movement. It made Marshall one the most well-known lawyers in the country. Derrick Bell was a twenty-four year-old Air Force officer who took an interest in equality and his stewardship of this case was a great inspiration.
Bell was born in 1930 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the community immortalized in August Wilson’s plays, and he attended Duquesne University before enlisting. After serving two years, he entered the University of Pittsburgh’s law school and, in 1957, was the only Black graduate in his class. After he received a job offer in the Department of Justice’s civil-rights division, he discovered that his superiors were members of the N.A.A.C.P. He was told by his superiors that the N.A.A.C.P membership was a conflict and that he should resign. Bell chose to give up his job than compromise a principle in a move that would become a hallmark of his career. Instead, he began to work at the Pittsburgh N.A.A.C.P. where he met Marshall. Marshall hired Bell in 1960 as a staff lawyer at the Legal Defense Fund. The L.D.F. The L.D.F. was the legal arm for the N.A.A.C.P. It served as the legal arm for the N.A.A.C.P. from 1957 until it was spun off as an independent organization.
Bell arrived at a crucial moment in the L.D.F.’s history. In 1956, two years after Brown, it successfully litigated Browder v. Gayle, the case that struck down segregation on city buses in Alabama—and handed Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery Improvement Association a victory in the yearlong boycott they had organized. The L.D.F. Bell managed or supervised many of the desegregation cases brought forward by the L.D.F. Winson Hudson reached out to her, and she was able to see the disconnect between the agendas of national civil-rights groups and the priorities of local communities they were responsible for serving. In her memoir, she recalls a heated exchange with Bell’s white representative. She told him, “If you don’t bring the school back to Harmony, we will be going to your school.” Where the L.D.F. Hudson saw integration to be the end goal. Hudson saw it to be leverage in the fight for quality Black schools in her area.
Already, the Harmony school was a hot topic. Medgar Evers from Mississippi, the N.A.A.C.P. field secretary, visited the area and helped organize the local chapter. He warned members that they could be killed by the work they were doing. Bell was careful not to drive himself on his trips to the state. He knew that turning wrong on unfamiliar roads could result in death. Marshall joked that if Bell was to be killed in Mississippi by the L.D.F., he would use a Jackson white-only phone booth. His funeral would be used as a fundraiser. However, the dangers were real. Evers, who was 27 years old, was shot and killed by a white supremacist on his Jackson driveway in June 1963. In subsequent years, there was an attempted firebombing of Hudson’s home and two bombings at the home of her sister, Dovie, who was Diane Hudson’s mother and was involved in the movement. That suffering and loss could not have eased Bell’s growing sense that his efforts had only helped create a more durable system of segregation.
Bell quit the L.D.F. in 1966 for an academic career that took him first to the University of Southern California’s law school, where he directed the public-interest legal center, and then, in 1969, in the aftermath of King’s assassination, to Harvard Law School, as a lecturer. Derek Bok, the dean of the school, promised Bell that he would be “the first but not the last” of his Black hires. In 1971, Bok was made the president of the university, and Bell became Harvard Law’s first Black tenured professor. He began creating courses that explored the nexus of civil rights and the law—a departure from traditional pedagogy.
In 1970, he had published a casebook titled “Race, Racism and American Law,” a pioneering examination of the unifying themes in civil-rights litigation throughout American history. The book also contained the seeds of an idea that became a prominent element in his work: that racial progress had occurred mainly when it aligned with white interests—beginning with emancipation, which, he noted, came about as a prerequisite for saving the Union. The civil-rights movement was responsible for bringing about changes that could be called a second Reconstruction. It took place between 1954 and 1968. King’s death was a devastating loss, but hope persisted that a broader vista of possibilities for Black people and for the nation lay ahead. These victories became less of an antidote and more like a treatment for a condition whose worst symptoms could be temporarily relieved, but cannot be treated. Bell reached this conclusion before many others. If the civil rights movement had been a second Reconstruction it was worth noting that the first one was ended in the fiery purges during the so-called Redemption era. This was when slavery, although extinct, was resurrected under new forms like sharecropping, convict leasing, and other forms of labor. Bell seemed to have found himself in a position akin to Thomas Paine’s: he’d been both a participant in a revolution and a witness to the events that revealed the limitations of its achievements.
Bell’s skepticism was deepened by the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Bakke v. University of California, which challenged affirmative action in higher education. U.C. twice rejected Allan Bakke, a prospective white medical student. Davis. He sued the regents of the University of California, arguing that he had been denied admission because of the school’s minority set-aside admissions, or quotas—and that affirmative action amounted to “reverse discrimination.” The Supreme Court ruled that race could be considered, among other factors, for admission, and that diversifying admissions was both a compelling interest and permissible under the Constitution, but that the University of California’s explicit quota system was not. Bakke was accepted to the school.
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