Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

President Obama and the Derrick Bell “Controversy.”

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The recent attack on President Barack Obama for his support of the late scholar, teacher and civil rights advocate Derrick Bell in his days as a Harvard Law School student is another attempt to discredit the president.

Derrick Bell was a pioneer and trail blazer, an outstanding and compassionate spokesperson for Civil and Human rights whose scholarship and activism personified the quintessential American values of liberty and justice for all. His name should be enshrined in the hallowed halls of great Americans who have given their lives for the cause of justice and freedom. He would concur with Reinhold Niebuhr that “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible while man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

The problem here is not only the defamation of Derrick Bell’s legacy of scholarship and activism, but the tawdry attempts by critics to suggest that Obama’s support of Bell during his time at Harvard was somehow subversively un- American.

Obama’s opponents keep attempting to discredit the man by linking him with so called shadowy persons of ill repute and shady leanings. Had they done their homework and thoroughly studied the life and work of Derrick Bell, they would have discovered to their amazement that he was great soldier for justice, fought long and hard for the rights of blacks and women, and can be counted among those, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, who dared to enter the arena and would not shrink in the face of duty or let their voices be silenced by the jangling discords of our continuing racial, gender and class divisions. He was one who in both praise and protest became part of the life’s blood and bone marrow of a growing and strengthening democracy.

President Obama need not be ashamed of his stance with Bell nor should he cower to those wishing to shout him down or call him un-American for standing firm for truth, justice and equality. This is America. We, the beneficiaries of this freedom, could not have come this far without those voices and souls, varied and sundry, which came to the aid of their fellow citizens in their hour of need and stood on the scaffold of freedom and justice risking life, limb and personal relationships for a better America.

No matter how many persons try to call into question or deface the integrity, nobility and dignity of such actions, we must never forget that this represents the best of America. No matter how many persons try to divide and subdivide the significance of such actions by pulverizing them into dust, we must never forget that the sacrifices made on behalf of our beloved country have come in every color and in every hue, from persons of every station and every status, every gender and every vocation, from privileged and under privileged, have and have not.

No! There is nothing controversial about Obama’s support of Derrick Bell except for those who choose to make it into something unworthy of America, or something beneath caring and compassionate persons who come to the aid of neighbors in need. It is only controversial to those who cannot appreciate the truth of such actions because they are blinded by their social conditioning or too politically near sighted to see that such actions should be valued and honored because they promote the best of American values and democracy.

Too many people today have developed amnesia about the underlying principles that make our nation unique and too many of them are quick to belittle and demean President Obama and others for actions in which we should all take pride in regards to those who are treated unjustly and unfairly in our society.

God help us if we cannot see this. God help us if we have come to the point where we cannot understand that” one act of justice anywhere is morally linked to other acts of justice everywhere.” This is America. We should celebrate and not be ashamed of any stance for justice, freedom or human and civil rights, especially when done by our president, and our leaders, and our citizens today, yesterday or tomorrow. This is precisely is what is needed today when rights and privileges are being gradually abbreviated and leaders who could advocate more vigorously for everyday citizens sit mired and muted as American democracy slowly fades from view.

We need not hang our heads in shame for these acts but be thankful that we have stood for something valuable and meaningful that will strengthen this nation, promote distributive, retributive and restorative justice and protect the rights of all American citizens. The justice for which we should all strive embraces but transcends race, political party, class, gender, ethnicity, religion and all other categories.

What both President Obama and Derrick Bell did were honorable acts by Americans who care about this country and are concerned that every man, woman and child be given their due as citizens of a great republic.

If we don’t get this truth then we have missed the boat on what America should be all about and the higher ideals for which we as a nation should continually, fervently and ever so vigorously strive.

In the words of Elie Wiesel, “We are not always able to prevent injustice but we should never ever fail to protest it,” whenever and where ever we can.


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