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Nearly 60 years after it first opened the door to membership by blacks, the American Bar Association is poised to elect its first black president: former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. Archer, 60, is running unopposed for the position of president-elect, which means he will take office as president in August 2003. He is scheduled to become president-elect nominee Monday morning at the association’s midwinter meeting in Philadelphia. A longtime player in ABA circles, Archer became chairman of Detroit’s Dickinson Wright after leaving office as mayor a month ago. He sat on the Michigan Supreme Court prior to his tenure as mayor. In advance of the meeting, the ABA has been low-key about the milestone, partly in deference to Archer’s own wishes. Archer has declined to give pre-convention press interviews, not wanting to “jinx” the election, according to an association spokeswoman. Archer’s election is provoking mixed reactions among some minorities in the legal profession: happiness that a black person will lead the nation’s largest lawyers’ group, tinged by a sense that this “first” is long overdue. “It’s been very slow” in coming, says Rachel Patrick, staff director of the ABA’s Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice. “But it is a cause for celebration.” Damon Keith, longtime friend of Archer and a senior judge on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, says Archer’s election will have “a ripple effect across the land, by showing young lawyers what’s possible with diligence and hard work.” It also symbolizes, Keith says, “the patience that has kept black people together.” Howard University law professor J. Clay Smith Jr. adds, “The question has to be asked, ‘What took so long?’ ” Smith, author of “ Emancipation,” a 1993 history of black lawyers, has charted the ABA’s history on race issues. Founded in 1878 with a charter that was silent on whether blacks could join, the ABA did not face the question until 1912, when the leadership discovered that three black lawyers had been admitted without their race being known. Southern ABA leaders rebelled and sought to expel them, but then-Attorney General George Wickersham weighed in on the side of allowing the black members to remain. The ABA passed a resolution in 1912 that did not expel the members outright, but stated that “it has never been contemplated that members of the colored race be members of the association.” Local bar groups were told to alert the association if a black lawyer applied in the future. After the 1912 convention, Smith says, it was generally understood that the three would be “the last black lawyers admitted to membership.” Twenty-five years later, a new generation of Northern lawyers began agitating for change. In 1943, the association scrapped its anti-black policy, resolving that ABA membership “is not dependent upon race, creed or color.” The Dallas Bar Association lobbied to rescind the new policy, according to Smith, arguing that admitting black members would lower “the dignity of the bar.” Smith says that as soon as the policy changed in 1943, at least two black members were admitted. A historical article by the ABA’s Patrick indicated that no blacks were admitted until 1950. Whichever account is true, blacks did not become active in ABA leadership until the mid- and late 1960s. It was not until 1969 that the first black lawyer was elected to head an ABA section. The association began a major push for minority membership with passage in 1986 of so-called Goal 9, urging “full and equal participation” of minorities and women in the profession. Archer is expected to continue that effort, although Judge Keith explains, “his agenda is larger than that.” Keith says Archer will be a “vocal advocate” for the legal profession generally. The ABA does not keep precise demographic statistics on its membership, and members identify their race to the ABA only if they want to. But that self-reporting, along with recent surveys, suggest that about 2.3 percent of the ABA’s 400,000 members are black, officials say. Census figures from 1990 put the percentage of lawyers nationally who are black at 3.3 percent. The ABA numbers have traditionally been affected by the powerful presence of the National Bar Association, created by black lawyers in 1925 in large part because of the ABA’s policy of exclusion. While many prominent black lawyers are active in both groups — Archer himself headed the NBA in 1983 — there is still some resistance to the ABA, says Smith. “Many African-American lawyers will refuse to join the ABA,” says Smith. Current NBA President Michael Rosier of Rosier & Associates of Oxon Hill, Md., could not be reached for comment. But one former NBA president, Randy Jones, says, “The NBA and the ABA have over the past few years developed a good working relationship.” Jones, a federal prosecutor in California, serves on an ABA committee himself. “Although there are many issues about the profession and the legal system that can best be addressed by the NBA, there are times when the NBA and ABA can work together for the good of the profession and our nation.” Those who follow the sometimes byzantine politics of the ABA may be surprised that Archer is slated to be the first black president. In 1998, Robert Grey Jr., a black partner at LeClair Ryan in Richmond, Va., was made chairman of the ABA’s House of Delegates — a sure path to the ABA presidency. Grey was touted at the time as the likely first black ABA president. Instead, Grey will probably be second, beginning his term right after Archer’s term ends in 2004. Grey has announced his candidacy and, so far, is unopposed. It was widely believed, even within the ABA, that Grey and Archer had come together to allow the more high-profile Archer to become president first. But Grey denies that, asserting that by the ABA’s own rules, he could not have started a run for the presidency until now, two years after the end of his chairmanship of the House of Delegates. “There is no gentleman’s agreement,” says Grey. “I always knew Dennis wanted to be president as soon as he could, and he picked now. I’m fine about it.” Former ABA President Martha Barnett, a partner at Holland & Knight in Tallahassee, Fla., says the combination of Archer and Grey underlines the association’s dedication to equality. “It is a significant statement to have the first African-American as president,” says Barnett, who was the ABA’s second female president. “But to have two in a row, it’s a commitment.”

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