By Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker
As an attorney, Derrick Bell worked on many civil-rights cases, but his doubts about their impact launched a groundbreaking school of thought.
The town of Harmony, Mississippi, which owes its origins to a small number of formerly enslaved Black people who bought land from former slaveholders after the Civil War, is nestled in Leake County, a perfectly square allotment in the center of the state. According to local lore, Harmony, which was previously called Galilee, was renamed in the early nineteen-twenties, after a Black resident who had contributed money to help build the town’s school said, upon its completion, “Now let us live and work in harmony.” This story perhaps explains why, nearly four decades later, when a white school board closed the school, it was interpreted as an attack on the heart of the Black community. The school was one of five thousand public schools for Black children in the South that the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald funded, beginning in 1912. Rosenwald’s foundation provided the seed money, and community members constructed the building themselves by hand. By the sixties, many of the structures were decrepit, a reflection of the South’s ongoing disregard for Black education. Nonetheless, the Harmony school provided its students a good education and was a point of pride in the community, which wanted it to remain open. In 1961, the battle sparked the founding of the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.
That year, Winson Hudson, the chapter’s vice-president, working with local Black families, contacted various people in the civil-rights movement, and eventually spoke to Derrick Bell, a young attorney with the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in New York City. Bell later wrote, in the foreword to Hudson’s memoir, “Mississippi Harmony,” that his colleagues had been astonished to learn that her purpose was to reopen the Rosenwald school. He said he told her, “Our crusade was not to save segregated schools, but to eliminate them.” He added that, if people in Harmony were interested in enforcing integration, the L.D.F., as it is known, could help.