July 16, 2004 – Dennis Wayne Archer, the first African-American president of the American Bar Association, delivered a message of hope on Friday to more than 80 members of the Virgin Islands business and legal communities. His speech focused on his idea that lawyers can be community and world healers, with special emphasis on the importance of public education in the development of a just and vital society.
Archer covered a lot of ground as keynote speaker at a luncheon at Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort sponsored jointly by the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce and the Virgin Islands Bar Association.
An animated orator, the former Detroit mayor and Michigan Supreme Court justice drew together topics as seemingly divergent as the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, China's domestic education policy, and the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education ending legal segregation in public schools.
"Lawyers have the power to heal, to right the wrongs of the past," Archer said to an appreciative audience which included dozens of attorneys and several Territorial Court judges. From Thomas Jefferson, lawyer and author of the Declaration of Independence, to lawyers who in the early years of the 1950s "volunteered countless hours and even risked their lives" putting together a case for the plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education, Archer believes that "lawyers are the ultimate public servants."
"There is not a non-profit in existence that doesn't have a lawyer on its board working for free," Archer said while bemoaning that "less than 10 percent of American lawyers are of color," a fact he finds of grave concern and which he has fought to change throughout his long and varied career.
He thinks it is education, however, that will make the difference in the future, if the U.S. is to maintain its role as a world leader. America, he said, must become a place where "every single child is given the same opportunity to receive a good education," not just the children whose families can afford to send them to expensive private schools. "Education is the absolute key, and I believe the public schools must provide this education," he said.
He said that more than 300,000 people in China graduated with degrees in engineering last year, compared to 65,000 in the United States. "To remain competitive, we are going to have to change," he said.
An outspoken advocate of diversity in the legal profession, he urged his audience to take personal responsibility. As part of an initiative begun by Archer and the ABA, lawyers and judges on the mainland are visiting schools and speaking to students as early as the 7th grade. "Reach into this community," he said, "and teach them about the majesty of the legal profession."
Born in Detroit in 1942, Archer received a bachelor's degree in education in 1965, according to a published biography. For the next five years he taught learning-disabled elementary school students in Detroit public schools while studying at Detroit College of Law, where he earned his juris doctor degree in 1970.
He went on to work as a trial lawyer for a number of Detroit firms before taking on the responsibilities of teaching law at his alma mater and at Wayne State University Law School. He was appointed an associate justice of the Michigan Supreme Court in 1985 and was later elected to an 8-year term. He turned to politics and in 1993 was elected mayor of Detroit. He was re-elected in 1997, capturing 83 percent of the vote in that election.
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