EJI Mourns the Loss of Civil Rights Leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Law Professor Derrick Bell


Rev. Fred Shuttleworth

The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, organizer of the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama, and courageous civil rights advocate, died this Wednesday in Birmingham at age 89. Derrick Bell, pioneering civil rights lawyer and law professor, also passed away on Wednesday.

Born poor in Alabama, Rev. Shuttleworth formed an organization to carry on the work of the NAACP after Alabama outlawed it and in 1957 became one of the four founding ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Known for his fiery advocacy against segregation, Rev. Shuttleworth fearlessly stood up to infamous Birmingham police commissioner T. Eugene (Bull) Connor, survived beatings and bombings by segregationists, and was arrested some 40 times for participating in peaceful civil rights demonstrations.

Rev. Shuttlesworth invited Dr. Martin Luther King to Birmingham in 1963 for a two-week-long demonstration by African American children, students, clergy, and others, hoping to provoke confrontation and “launch a systematic, wholehearted battle against segregation, which would set the pace for the nation.”

Bull Connor’s brutal use of fire hoses, police dogs, and terrifying violence against the nonviolent protestors provoked a national outcry and, together with the marches in Selma that Rev. Shuttlesworth also helped to coordinate, led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After 1965, Rev. Shuttleworth continued to work tirelessly for equality in Alabama and Ohio, where he became the pastor of a church. He became an elder statesman of the Civil Rights Movement and was honored in 2008 when the City of Birmingham renamed its airport Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

Derrick Bell was a lawyer, law teacher, and legal scholar who pioneered the field of critical race theory — a body of legal scholarship that explores how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions – and leveraged his positions as the first tenured African American professor at Harvard Law School and first African American dean of the University of Oregon School of Law to challenge law schools to embrace diversity in their hiring practices.

After graduating from University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1957, where he was the only Black student, Professor Bell became the only African American lawyer among thousands of attorneys working in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. He left after two years when the government asked him to resign his membership in the NAACP and went on to become first assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund under Thurgood Marshall, where he supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases in Mississippi.

In 1969, after teaching briefly at the University of Southern California, he was recruited and hired by Harvard Law School. In 1990, Professor Bell left Harvard on unpaid leave, vowing not to return until the school hired a Black woman to join its tenured faculty. Harvard refused to extend his leave, and by then he was teaching at New York University School of Law, where he was a visiting professor until his death.

Harvard Law School hired Lani Guinier, the first Black woman hired to join the tenured faculty, in 1998.

Professor Bell wrote extensively about the progress of racial reform in the United States across a range of genres, from fiction to legal analysis to autobiography. His scholarship rejected dry legal analysis in favor of parables and allegories about race relations, and his narrative technique gave female, Latino and gay scholars a new vehicle for expression in legal discourse.

A beloved constitutional law professor at NYU for more than twenty years, Professor Bell’s scholarship and intellectual legacy will continue there with the long-running annual Bell Lecture, where prominent scholars discuss everything from racially tinged economics to post-racial challenges in the Obama era.