Dr. Roy Charles Bell Sr., 84: Pioneering dentist and civil rights leader

Dr. Roy Charles Bell Sr., a prominent Atlanta dentist and civil rights activist, helped open the doors so African-Americans could access proper health care at Grady Memorial Hospital.

In 1962, he sued Grady in a federal case that led the Atlanta hospital, and others nationwide, to provide equal care. Bell vs. Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority desegregated hospitals in the state of Georgia and across the country.

Dr. Bell moved to Atlanta after finishing dental school at Howard University. He was welcomed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- who was the cousin of  the dentist's wife, Clarice Marijetta Wyatt -- and other civil rights leaders. He joined their efforts to end Jim Crow.

Until last year, the activist continued to practice dentistry in Jonesboro. Last month, he was visiting relatives in Williamsburg, Va., when he underwent an emergency gall bladder operation. He died from its complications on July 1 at Sentara Williamsburg Community Hospital. He was 84. A private family service has been held.

Dr. Bell was one of the first African-American dentists to practice in Atlanta and did so from 1959 to 1979. Then, he served as Commissioner of Human Rights and Fair Housing in Sacramento from 1981 to 1983, and as a dental consultant in Rockville, Md., from 1983 to 2003 before returning to the city.

During the civil rights movement, Dr. Bell served as a special projects coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He protested, among other issues, the Peyton Road barricades that were erected to keep African-Americans from moving to white neighborhoods in southwest Atlanta.

Dr. Bell worked to end discriminatory practices in his profession, too. He filed a 1964 lawsuit that led to the end of segregation of the Georgia Dental Association and, subsequently, the American Dental Association. He wasn't the first black dentist to join the state organization, but in 1968 was accepted into the fold.

He and other civil rights leaders were invited to the White House to receive a citation from President Lyndon B. Johnson for their efforts. In 1996, the Georgia Senate passed a resolution to commend his desegregation work. He earned a law degree from the Woodrow Wilson College of Law in the mid-1970s.

"He will be forever remembered as a father, visionary and civil rights activist who dared to stand up against the injustice of Jim Crow," said his daughter, Dr. Ava Bell-Taylor of Atlanta.

Dr. Bell gets mentioned in the 16th chapter of King's autobiography. It's devoted to the Albany movement, the terrible jail conditions and visitors that called on the civil rights leader.

"Soon, the Rev. Mr. Walker came over with Dr. Roy C. Bell from Atlanta and Larry Still, a writer from Jet," King wrote. "Roy inspected Ralph's teeth and said he would arrange with Chief Pritchett to get us some ‘food packages.' I told him this was needed because we would starve on the jail house food."

Additional survivors include a son, Eric Wyatt Bell of Jonesboro; two other daughters, Dr. Clarice Bell Strayhorn of Atlanta and Raina Bell Saunders, both of Atlanta; two sisters, Georgia Taylor of White Plains, N.Y. and Jean Davis of Hampton, Va.; and 11 grandchildren.