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Dennis Archer and Black America’s Pioneer Generation

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Early August, indelibly separated now by the great power failure that hit much of the Northeast and Midwest, seems in some ways a long time ago. But something happened in this month’s early days that should not be overlooked.

Dennis W. Archer, the former Mayor of Detroit and a former Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, was elected president of the American Bar Association.

Archer’s election as the first African-American to head the prestigious ABA is of great symbolic and substantive importance for several reasons.

One has to do with its timing.

It was formally approved by delegates to the ABA convention in Chicago in the same month that will see the fortieth-anniversary commemoration of the historic March on Washington of 1963. Further, Archer will preside over the ABA during much of 2004—the fiftieth anniversary of the watershed United States Supreme Court decision in the Brown school desegregation case.

In that regard, Archer’s election is a reminder that, for all the progress made since the 1950s and 1960s, the numerous “firsts” yet left for African Americans to achieve at both the high and middle levels of American society indicate how substantial the “equality gap” remains between Black America and White America. Black America is still in its “pioneer generation” mode.

Dennis Archer’s election also underscores African Americans’ unstinting allegiance to the belief that the principles of the Constitution and the ideal of the rule of law have meaning and can be used to produce justice and right great systemic wrongs. With extraordinary patience Blacks held that belief through the era of Slavery and of the equally unjust Jim Crow decades which followed.

Finally, Dennis Archer’s personal story offers an inspiring example of the broad societal benefits to throwing open the gates of opportunity.

Born in Detroit and raised in nearby Cassiopolis, Archer worked his way through college at Western Michigan University, and then taught learning-disabled children in the Detroit public schools while earning his law degree from Detroit College of Law in 1970.

For more than a decade thereafter he mixed teaching law at his alma mater and at Wayne State University Law School with a prominent private practice and important service to the broader legal community. That included serving as president of the Wolverine Bar Association in 1979-1980, president of the National Bar Association in 1983-1984, and president of the State Bar of Michigan in 1984-85.

In 1985 Michigan Governor James Blanchard appointed Archer an Associate Justice of the state’s Supreme Court; he won election to an eight-year term on his own the following year. In his final year on the bench the Michigan Lawyers Weekly named him the state’s most respected judge.

Archer than campaigned for and won election to two four-year terms as Mayor of Detroit from 1994 to 2001, returning to private law practice while serving a term in 2001 as president of the National League of Cities.

This is an amazing record of achievement. But it’s even more important that we recognize what fueled it: Dennis Archer’s determination to contribute to the larger civic good.

One may say that it’s not all that surprising an African American of Archer’s generation would be so civic-minded.

After all, when he was coming of age, the battle to gain for Blacks the formal civil rights the ideal of America had long promised was reaching its zenith; and people from all walks of life—from a great lawyer like Thurgood Marshall to the Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer, whose formal education reached only the eighth grade but who possessed the quality of greatness in abundance—were proving that everyone could make a contribution.

But, in fact, it goes deeper than that. Dennis Archer, like many of his contemporaries, recognized that it was his responsibility to contribute to the common good.

And it is our responsibility to continually remind—and inspire—today’s generation of African Americans and other Americans to follow examples of civic engagement like his; for without such selflessness Black Americans will never be able to close the several “equality gaps” that still separate them as a group from full participation in the mainstream of American society.

Of course, the most fundamental weapon of civic empowerment has always been the right to vote. But, sadly, too many Americans, including African Americans, still don't get it—the nation’s overall voter participation hovers around 50%. When we don’t vote and don’t participate in the civic life of our community, we’re only hurting ourselves.

That’s why I promised at our recent annual conference that the National Urban League would take a new, active role in registering people to vote and encouraging them to vote.

We’ll never cross the line and tell people for whom to vote, but being non-partisan doesn’t mean being naïve. We can‘t afford to pretend that political events do not affect the work that we do or the people we care about.

That would be the height of civic irresponsibility.

Instead, we’re going to follow the example of Dennis W. Archer and carry on the work of Black America’s pioneer generation.

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