Attorney, author, and former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer takes great pride in his Michigan roots. Born in Detroit, Archer graduated from Detroit College of Law, now the College of Law at Michigan State University, with a law degree in 1970. In 1971 he opened a purely black law firm with three other partners.
In 1985, Governor James Blanchard named Archer Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Archer was elected for an eight-year term the following year; During his tenure, he was named the state’s most respected judge. In 1990 he resigned to run for mayor. David Axelrod, who later became President Obama’s chief campaign strategist, led Archer’s campaign.
During his tenure as Mayor from 1994 to 2001, Archer drew $ 11 billion in new business to Detroit and raised $ 100 million in federal Empowerment Zone funds to help uplifting urban communities. He was named one of the 25 Most Dynamic Mayors in America by Newsweek, one of Ebony’s 100 Most Influential Black Americans, and one of the 100 Most Powerful Lawyers in the United States by the National Law Journal. In 2000, Governing magazine named him Official of the Year.
Archer also served on four bar associations, including serving as president of the American Bar Association, which banned black members until 1943. He was the first black man to hold this position.
Today, aged 79, Archer is retired chairman of the Dickinson Wright law firm in Detroit and Winter, Sarasota with his wife, Trudy DunCombe Archer, a retired judge in Michigan’s 36th District Court. Archer is also a board member of the John and Mable Ringling Art Museum and the advisory board of the Westcoast Black Theater Troupe.
How was your childhood?
Cassopolis, where I grew up, was 187 miles from Detroit and had a population of 1,200 and many factories. It was also an Underground Railroad stop for slaves to cross the Detroit River into Canada. I still remember the day my father ran over the car and pointed out the country where the railroad was once located.
Tell us about your parents.
My father was in third grade and my mother had a high school diploma. They made it clear to me early on that I was going to college. But they couldn’t tell me where to go because they had never set foot on campus.
My father worked for a man named Vern Westcott who owned a tool in South Bend, Indiana. He had a summer home on Diamond Lake in Cassopolis; It was a pristine, beautiful lake. Neither had a colored person there, nor were we allowed to swim in the lake. We didn’t have running water at home, so I always loved going to Westcott with my father for a shower.
We swam near Stone Lake and where black people owned huts. Black children came in to go to camp in the summer. My father worked there and made $ 75 every two weeks for six months. After that, it was reduced to $ 37.50 every two weeks. During those lean months I heard my father say he had to go to the social services department. I didn’t know then what he meant by that, but now I know it was about putting food on the table.
When did you become aware of the civil rights movement?
In 1954 I met Brown Against the Board of Education at Church. I listened to the people in the church talking about this lawyer named Thurgood Marshall who would make a difference by giving the black community access to better education.
Other than that, I had no feel for it until high school when my uncle brought us an old TV. Then I got the chance to watch the news. I found out about the Montgomery bus boycott, the blacks doing sit-ins at the lunch tables, and the black activists being hosed down and beaten for wanting the right to vote. And this is where I first heard of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.
Tell us about Detroit’s 1967 speakeasy riot.
My father-in-law and I returned home from a round of golf that morning and we could see smoke. As we got closer we could smell it. When I dropped him off at home, I learned that early in the morning the police had ambushed the blind pig, a joint that black townspeople would go to after work.
The police arrested 85 people but did not have enough touring cars. By the time the transport arrived, a mob had gathered and someone threw a bottle which, for five days, sparked rebellion, riot, fire, and destruction, killing 43 people. Governor George Romney called for thousands of army troops, National Guards and police officers.
At the time I thought segregation was only in the South based on what I saw on TV, but I quickly learned about discrimination against blacks.
What did you learn about racial discrimination while working for a law firm?
I saw for the first time how much power lawyers had to represent to minorities who could not represent themselves.
As I was preparing for law school, I was invited to an interview with Martindale Hubbell, a major law firm. After the interviewer and I said hello, he politely told me that the firm didn’t hire attorneys from Detroit College of Law – only University of Michigan, Harvard, Yale, etc. I thanked him and when I went outside, did I smiled it to myself because I had done the research on the interviewer. He graduated from the same college as me. No large Michigan law firm had black lawyers and even fewer women.
Many black lawyers did not get the respect they deserved in white law firms, so some started their own law firms. But they would also have to have a full-time job until they build a clientele. Some had to work as lawyers long after they retired.
In 1994, in your first year as mayor, Congress passed the controversial crime law. Many say it undermines judicial reform. What do you think?
I was a proponent of the crime law, and then-President Clinton had the support of the United States Mayors’ Conference. At that time, all big cities had a big problem with crime and needed more police on the streets. And we all got Joe Biden – then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee – to get it passed.
What no one expected was Conservative Republicans changing the law and the unintended state-level consequences that negatively affected people of color. When I became president of the American Bar Association, 65 percent of the people in US prisons were Black or Hispanic. The minorities were given more time.
Tell us about your relationship with Clinton.
When I became mayor, I took part in Clinton’s presidential election. I met him through Rodney Slater, who later became President Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation, at an annual National Bar Association meeting.
I’ve gotten close to the President – so much so that I’ve been to the White House twice, once in Lincoln’s bedroom. If I left a message for Clinton, he would return my call even if he was out of the country.
In October 2004, you were appointed legal guardian of the civil rights icon Rosa Parks. How was she?
Rosa Parks found out about a song named after her when she was in church. In March 1999, she filed a lawsuit against American hip-hop duo OutKast and their record company – Rosa Parks v LaFace Records – alleging that their song, “Rosa Parks”, had used her name without permission.
I was asked by a federal judge to consider being their guardian and I consented. Rosa was someone I admired and respected long before I met her. When I was in high school I read about when she was arrested for not wanting to give up her place on a bus. She and her husband lost their jobs as a result.
She was just as wonderful and thoughtful as possible. Everyone loved and respected her. She founded a foundation called the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development for youth development and civil rights education and advocacy. She was a remarkable person; It was humble to represent them. Not long after the OutKast case was settled, it passed. At this point we had been known for almost four decades.
What do you think would improve racial relations when you look at the state of the US today?
We went through a time I’ve never seen. We have seen discrimination against everyone from color lawyers to US presidents. During this time, many took a closer and different look at society and racial issues. Diversity, equity and inclusion are important not only for what we do and what we have, but also for what we want to change.
Look at companies that, following the January 6th events, raised funds from politicians who used money to perpetuate falsehoods. Companies can make a difference on race-to-gender issues, especially when looking at their hiring practices. One option is to have more women on boards – a study found that company boards that had female representation fared better for shareholders.
Serving minorities, including women, has been a priority throughout my career. For those of us who have been successful, it is important to open doors to those who come behind us. It will make a difference.