Derrick Bell and one little black girl

Derrick Bell Jr., a civil rights lawyer and one of the seminal thinkers in critical race theory, wrote a book, Silent Covenants, about the  U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools and why it failed to achieve its purpose.

In 1961, he was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, filing lawsuits calling for desegregation

He was called upon for help by two sisters, Winson and Dovie Hudson, pillars of the community in the all-black town of Harmony, Mississippi. 

Their town’s school, built by the residents themselves in the 1920s with help from Northern philanthropists, had been closed in retaliation for their civil rights activism.

He told them that he would not file a lawsuit to reopen a segregated school, but he would represent them if they were willing to sue to desegregate the county school district.

They agreed.  Several families signed onto the suit.

A bitter struggle followed.  Night-riders fired guns into private homes.  Many of those who signed on to the lawsuit lost their jobs or credit.

But they won.  A federal judge ordered desegregation of Harmony’s schools, starting with the first grade in the fall of 1964.

Just one couple, A.J. Lewis and his wife, Minnie, sent their little daughter, Debra, to the all-white school.  She was accompanied by federal marshals armed with shotguns, who escorted her through a large, hostile crowd.

The next day Mr. Lewis was fired from his job and whites tried to burn down his house.

But the American Friends Service Committee provided some financial aid.  Debra eventually graduated from the local high school, left the area and “held several interesting positions.”  When she died of pneumonia in 2001, the Harmony community erected a memorial in her honor.

Was it worth it?  All this struggle and suffering for just one person?

Years later, Bell met with the Hudson sisters, and said he wondered if he shouldn’t have helped them reopen their school instead of what he did.

“Well, Derrick, I also wondered if that was the best way to go about it,” Winson replied.  “It’s done now.  We made it and we are still moving.”

Even though he chose to fight on what may have been the wrong ground, he wrote, it is better to fight than give in. 

Racism, racial prejudice and racial discrimination are permanent features of American life, and never will be defeated for once and for all, Bell wrote.

He said African-Americans must continue to resist white dominance, not because they have a realistic hope that the USA will become an equal and just society, but for the sake of their own self-respect and human dignity.

LINKS

Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation by Derrick Bell for the Yale Law Journal (1976)

Racial Realism by Derrick Bell for the Connecticut Law Review (1992)

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