In the spring of 1991, Barack Obama, then the president of the Harvard Law Review, spoke at a rally in favor of Professor Derrick Bell and his push for greater diversity on the law school faculty, video footage that has been licensed by the website BuzzFeed from Boston television station WGBH:
The context of the video: Bell was the first black professor to sit on the law school faculty. As David Remnick wrote in his Obama biography “The Bridge,” “Derrick Bell was, in Barack Obama’s time, the most vivid symbol of racial politics at Harvard Law School…In 1962, Bell helped James Meredith win admittance to the University of Mississippi…”
In the 1960s, Bell spent years trying to make the leap from a civil rights attorney to an academic, but he was never deemed good enough for tenure, until after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and law schools began taking action to change the composition of their all-white faculties. The dean of Harvard Law School promised Bell, “You’ll be the first, but not the last.” But after two years on the faculty, he was still the only African-American, so Bell threatened to resign. As Remnick writes, “For the next two decades he repeatedly threatened to resign in order to get Harvard to hire more African-American men and, eventually, women. ‘My life,’ Bell said, ‘is a living manifestation of taking no shit.’”
As Elena Kagan, currently a U.S. Supreme Court justice and a former Harvard Law School dean, told Remnick, “By the time Barack got to campus, in 1988, all the talk and the debates were shifting to race.”
By Obama’s second year at Harvard Law School, there were five African-American men on the Harvard Law School faculty, but no African-American women. After a black visiting professor from the University of Pennsylvania named Regina Austin was denied tenure, Bell again threatened to leave the school. He began a hunger strike. Some students began to rally around him. Classmates were curious as to how Obama would react. He was considered liberal, but not a leader, when it came to political controversies, or racial ones.
Outside Harkness Commons, Obama joined the cause.
Recalling Bell speaking to Harvard Law student, Obama – with a now-familiar speaking style — called Bell “the Rosa Parks of legal education.” Obama praised the “excellence of his scholarship.”
“Open up your hearts and your minds to the words of Professor Derrick Bell,” Obama said.
Bell, incidentally, left Harvard, and went on to teach at New York University. He died last October.
UPDATE: I’m reminded that some of this video appeared in FRONTLINE’s excellent 2008 report “The Choice” (clickHERE, it’s about 29:30 minutes into the report.)