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Obama Entered Fight for Diversity at Harvard Law
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In 1991, Barack Obama’s final year at Harvard Law, he was the president of the Harvard Law Review. The spring of that year, Obama joined forces with Professor Derrick Bell and his protest in favor of diversity on the faculty of the law school. Bell was the first ever tenured black professor at Harvard Law School. He led a protest that spring because the school denied the tenure of a female black professor named Regina Austin. During this time, there were only three black professors and five were women.

Bell told the administration at Harvard Law School that he would put himself on an academic leave of absence “until a woman of color is offered and accepted a tenured position on this faculty.” Bell then began a hunger strike to make his point heard loud and clear. Obama was the first ever black president of the Harvard Law Review, making him one of the most important figures on campus at the time.


Obama described Bell as ‘the Rosa Parks of legal education’ in his speech to the Harkness Commons. Keith Boykin, an organizer of some of the protests, said:

“Barack was always supportive and sympathetic to our campaign for faculty diversity. He spoke about it at one of our rallies. But he was not actively involved in the protest movement. Nor did he need to be. As I said, his presence alone made the case. And even if he agreed with the cause of the movement, he didn’t need to be involved in the more radical protests we launched because our tactics were controversial on campus.”

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