Bell was a controversial guy, probably best known popularly for giving up a tenured professorship at Harvard Law School in protest of the school's failure to hire a black woman on the career track. He often wrote about the law in parables, for example in Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism. The unusual accessibility of his writing seems to have rendered him a curiosity and often an irritant in legal academia. The swirl of conflicting interpretations he set off has outlived him: I have not linked to his Wikipedia article because the detractors seem to be carrying the day there. Bell's friends need to get into the online encyclopedia and clean up the entry.
I was moved by news of Bell's passing to find a copy of his musings on the significance of it all: Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth. This is a gentle book, as much a humble examination of the human fallout from brave acts of integrity as a stern manifesto from a determined prophet of racial and gender equality.
Bell knew that working for justice meant being an outsider -- a perception that runs against the grain for most of us and requires some courage and honesty to hold on to.
He set the kind of standard for himself that can seem self-righteous.
Over a long life, he came to understand how he might appear to others.
Long experience in trying to make changes taught Bell that, however right we may think we are, and however "sophisticated" our analysis of wrongs and policies has become, we need to be able to re-examine our practices. In particular, he came to wonder whether his work for school desegregation in southern communities really served the educational interests of poor black families who just wanted better education for their kids, not so much or only integration with whites.
I am much drawn to this way of thinking (though I have inadequate knowledge of the particulars to know whether I agree with Bell's critique of his own work.) Progressives strive so hard to understand what is wrong in society and to formulate tactics to try to remedy it that we can get fixated on acting in ways that were useful in particular situations but become just more impediments when circumstances change. We fail to swing our attention to pressing new emergencies. We've been seeing that over the last three years of Recession and revealed economic inequality: after years of fighting battles for equity in the realms of race, gender and sexual orientation, it took new folks in the Occupy movement to give us a notion how to frame for the 99 percent of who need more economic justice. Thank goodness for the creativity of the people running ahead of the honest limitations of their "leaders."
Bell was not a man who thought there were easy answers -- but he couldn't live any way except "ethically" by his own lights.