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Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2002 / 17 Tishrei, 5763

Nat Hentoff

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The ABA sees the light | It should not be surprising that in the year 2002, the American Bar Association -- which bills itself as "the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world" -- should elect a distinguished black lawyer as its president-elect. But it's important that civics classes teach why he is the FIRST black president-elect of the ABA, founded in 1878.

Dennis Archer has been a twice-elected mayor of Detroit, a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and president of the State Bar of Michigan. When he became the ABA's president-elect in August, he was escorted to the podium in Washington by Mrs. Thurgood Marshall, widow of the first black justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Even more dramatic was the composition of his other escorts. Along with past presidents of the ABA were past presidents of the National Bar Association, a professional organization of black lawyers created in 1925. Why form the National Bar Association? Because, for years, black lawyers were refused admission to the ABA, which, as it describes itself, "provides law school accreditation, continuing legal education, information about the law, programs to assist lawyers and judges in their work and initiatives to improve the legal system for the public."

At least the ABA, in its press release on Archer's elevation, did not hide its lily-white past. Deep into that press release, the ABA noted that "Archer could not (in his acceptance speech) help but think of lawyers of color who had preceded him, and were at one time denied membership in the ABA."

A partial list followed in the release, including Justice Thurgood Marshall and such highly respected lower-court federal judges as William Hastie, Constance Baker Motley and Damon J. Keith. Also mentioned, solely by name, was one of the most influential law professors in American history, Charles Hamilton Houston. At Howard University law school, he trained hundreds of black lawyers and was a key legal strategist in the long, hard battles to include blacks in the 14th Amendment's guarantee of "equal protection under the laws."

Justice Marshall worked for Houston at the NAACP, and Justice William O. Douglas called Houston "one of the top 10 advocates to appear before the United States Supreme Court." But how many Americans, of any color, are taught about Charles Hamilton Houston?

Archer had his own hard road to prominence in the legal profession. His father was a laborer with a third-grade education, and his mother was a homemaker. He grew up in a home without indoor plumbing. While in high school, he set pins in a bowling alley and caddied for golfers. Before going to law school, Archer was a teacher of disabled children. At that point in his life, he says, he had never even met a lawyer. In his acceptance speech at the ABA, Archer looked at all the successful lawyers in front of him and urged them to "remember why you went to law school."

He reminded them of the lawyer's oath to represent the oppressed, especially those who can't afford lawyers.

Justice Marshall also often tried to persuade more lawyers to engage in public interest law and not spend their entire careers enabling corporations to become bigger. And his colleague and close friend, Justice William Brennan, in a 1986 speech before the ABA's Section on Individual Rights and Responsibilities, said, "We do not yet have justice, equal and practical, for the members of minority groups, for the criminally accused, for the displaced persons of the technological revolution, for alienated youth, for the urban masses, for the unrepresented consumer ... for all, in short, who do not partake of the abundance of American life. ... The goal of universal equality, freedom and prosperity is far from won and ... ugly inequities continue to mar the face of our nation. We are surely nearer the beginning than the end of the struggle."

And this struggle for equal protection of the laws encompasses all Americans who are without meaningful access to the courts as more and more younger lawyers are avoiding public interest law, and large firms are reducing their pro bono work for the poor and working class.

As head of the ABA, Dennis Archer has a chance to awaken the nation to the "ugly inequities" that continue to mar the face of this country.

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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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