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Dr. Roy C. Bell, civil rights activist, dies at 84

Atlanta—Civil rights activist and dentist Dr. Roy C. Bell Sr., whose courageous acts helped pave the way for African American dentists to gain acceptance in the ADA and its constituent and component societies, died in Williamsburg, Va., July 1 at the age of 84.

A graduate of the Howard University College of Dentistry and the Woodrow Wilson College of Law, Dr. Bell was one of the first black dentists to join the American Dental Association in the years that followed the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called him one of the first African American dentists to practice in Atlanta, which he did from 1959-79. He later became commissioner of human rights and fair housing in Sacramento, Calif. (1981-83) and was a dental consultant in Rockville, Md. (1983-2003). He returned to Atlanta in 2003, where he practiced dentistry until last year. 

When Dr. Bell first came to Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—Dr. Bell’s wife’s cousin—enlisted Dr. Bell’s help in the civil rights movement. Dr. Bell fought against the segregation of hospitals and zoning laws that kept African Americans from moving to white neighborhoods and was among a cadre of civil rights leaders who received citations from President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Georgia Senate awarded a commendation to Dr. Bell in 1996 for his contributions to desegregation. 

Bringing the same resolve to his profession, Dr. Bell championed equal rights for his colleagues in dentistry. His participation in acts of civil disobedience hastened the end of discriminatory membership practices in the ADA and its constituent and component societies, according to “150 Years of the American Dental Association: A Pictorial History, 1859-2009.”

Like many national organizations, the ADA was wrestling with equal rights issues in the 1950s and 60s. The ADA at the national level did not have race-based restrictions for membership but some state societies did, and dentists still had to join by way of a state society. At the National Dental Association’s urging, the ADA and NDA opened a dialogue that eventually led to bylaws changes that prohibited states from having race-based restrictions on membership.

Dr. Bell is perhaps best known for leading picket lines at state dental society meetings in the early 1960s while protesting discrimination in membership. He later became one of several dentists who took the ADA and some constituent societies to court to force them to accept their applications for membership.

“Without the courageous efforts of people like Dr. Bell, institutionalized racism in society and discrimination against African Americans might have lasted much longer than it did,” said ADA Immediate Past President Raymond Gist. “The ADA is a better organization because of him.”

Dr. Bell is survived by his children and grandchildren. Private family services were held.