Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell
Rev. Dr. Paul Smith
Pastor Emeritus, First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn Heights, NY
October 14, 2011
I do not remember exactly when I first met Derrick Bell, but I know my life took a decided turn upon meeting him. Derrick was an early trustee of the Howard Thurman Trust and in that role he studied and learned about mysticism, race relations and spirituality. Anyone associated with Howard Thurman was for me, a “saint.” Derrick and Howard Thurman spent quality time together and in some ways, these two men were on different paths. I continue to believe that Professor Bell honed his skills as a brilliant law professor through his conversations with Howard Thurman. Thurman’s book, The Negro Spirituals Speak of Life and Death, had great meaning for Derrick. With the Howard University Choir singing spiritual songs selected by Dr. Thurman followed by an interpretation gave great meaning to his own spirit. I believe Derrick Bell adapted a similar style when writing his book, Gospel Choirs. Clearly, the music Derrick loved so much unleashed something very deep stirring in his soul
In knowing Janet and Derrick, I was privileged to spend time with both of them when illness and sickness were their daily portion. During his last months, I spent quiet time with Derrick and was challenged in ways which I will remember for days to come. He was never morbid about his illness nor did he query God or me about contracting cancer. Rather, he spoke almost always about other people and he cared more for them than he did for himself. He worried about the people in Darfur, he wondered about the protesters in Libya and Syria and Egypt. He worried about the faces of the people in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. And yes, he worried about those men and women in prison and the children who had to go to bed hungry. This is where his passion was centered and where he worked tirelessly to “release the captives and set the captives free.” He worried about his beloved wife, Janet, and his sons. A couple of weeks before Derrick died, I went to his home as I have done on several occasions, but this particular day Derrick was a bit agitated because of his bouts with pain. He spoke softly that evening and when I asked him a question he instead asked me “to offer prayer.” I took his hand in mine and after a long silence, I began our prayer. As I prayed with Derrick he closed his eyes and soon fell asleep. His breathing was rhythmic and soft but steady. I sat quietly with him for a few more minutes before letting go of his hand and then I left the room. It was a sacramental moment for me and I will remember our experience for many years to come. On October 5th, Derrick Bell joined two other great souls Steve Jobs and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth in giving their consent to the Angels standing guard over their spirits, to allow Death to enter their rooms. They died but we who live must do a harder thing than dying is, for we must “think” and the ghosts shall drive us on.