Remembering Joann Bell

Dear ACLU of Oklahoma Community,

The ACLU of Oklahoma is deeply saddened to share the passing of former executive director and lifelong defender of civil liberties, Joann Bell. 

Joann, a native Oklahoman, began her career as a brave plaintiff in the much-noted ACLU case, Bell v. Little Axe. This case challenged the validity of students being required to attend a sectarian church service during school and whose ultimate victory and impact can still be felt to this day. It is often noted that due to this fight, Joann and her family lost their house in a fire set by unknown arsonists. Instead of backing down, Joann continued to push with her lawsuit. In recognition of her courage and fortitude, she received the Angie Debo Civil Libertarian of the Year Award. 

Joann began working for the ACLU of Oklahoma as a part-time litigation coordinator in 1987 and became Oklahoma's second Executive Director in 1988. While serving as the only employee for the affiliate her first five years, the ACLU of Oklahoma continued to flourish. And after 24 years of service, Joann retired. 

Joann has been honored many times throughout her career, including the Playboy Foundation's First Amendment Award, the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's Abolitionist of the Year Award, The Elliott Black award for "ethics in action" from the American Ethical Union, and the Religious Freedom Award from Americans United for Separation of Church and State. 

Joann was a fierce and unrelenting opponent of injustice and oppression, whose commitment to the protection of civil liberties and civil rights directly improved people’s lives. All of us here at the ACLU of Oklahoma have something to learn from the passion and persuasion she brought to her work every day. She leaves behind a powerful legacy of selflessness that will continue to inspire advocates both inside and outside the ACLU. 


Tamya Cox-Touré