In 1971, Mr. Bell became the first African American faculty member to gain tenure at Harvard Law School. He was one of the school’s most popular professors, regularly received prestigious grants and, in 1973, published “Race, Racism and American Law,” which has gone through several editions and has become a standard text in law schools.
Mr. Bell was credited with developing “critical race theory,” which suggested that the U.S. legal system was inherently biased against African Americans and other minorities because it was built on an ingrained white point of view. He argued in his many books and lectures that the life experiences of black people and other minorities should be considered in hiring decision and in applying the law.
Early in his career, Mr. Bell worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, managing hundreds of school desegregation cases in Mississippi. He spent a night in jail when he refused to leave a railroad waiting room reserved for whites.
In the early 1960s, he was a legal adviser in the effort to enroll James Meredith, an African American student, in the previously all-white University of Mississippi. After violent white resistance, federal marshals helped escort Meredith to class in 1962.
Later, while working for the civil rights office of the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Mr. Bell helped enforce provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Several times throughout his career, Mr. Bell resigned his positions over what he considered matters of principle. In 1959, when his bosses at the Justice Department told him it was a conflict of interest for him to belong to the NAACP, Mr. Bell quit his job.
He threatened to leave Harvard before he was granted tenure. After becoming dean of the law school at the University of Oregon in 1980, he resigned five years later when the school would not hire two Asian American women for its faculty.
Mr. Bell maintained that the standards for promotion and tenure at law schools — and Harvard, in particular — were inherently discriminatory and excluded a broad group of minorities. By hiring only graduates of top-tier law schools who had clerked at the Supreme Court, he argued, academia was populated by a uniform group of standard-issue professors, most of them white men.
Mr. Bell said the schools should give equal weight to the life experiences and racial makeup of people from other backgrounds.
He put his theory into practice in 1990, four years after he had returned to Harvard from his sojourn in Oregon. At that time, Harvard Law School had 60 tenured faculty members, including five who were women and three who were black.