Even four decades later, the Detroit riot of 1967 is hard to forget. After police officers raided a club in a black neighborhood, a few angry patrons vandalized nearby stores in protest. Looting became widespread, and fires eventually engulfed part of the city. Two days later, National Guard soldiers stormed the streets. By the riot’s fifth day, 43 people had died and some 7,000 had been arrested.
In the midst of the mayhem, Dennis Archer says he saw promise. Attorneys at Keith, Conyers, Anderson, Brown & Wahls—where he was a summer clerk—volunteered to represent some of the defendants. “It was the first time I saw how the rule of law worked for those who were arrested,” Archer says. “Lawyers gave individuals with a sense of hopelessness a sense of dignity.”
That idealistic view of the law has shaped his career. In the sixties, Archer taught special education classes in Detroit’s public schools during the day and attended law school at night. He entered a field that was nearly all white, but quickly began using professional associations as platforms for encouraging racial inclusion.
In 2003 he became the first African American president of the American Bar Association, a post that he used to advance the cause of female and minority lawyers. “He’s made law a more diverse profession,” says Esther Lardent, president and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. “He’s been pushing for diversity longer than just about everyone.”
In 1986 Archer left Charfoos, Christensen & Archer, where he was a litigator and shareholder, for a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court, becoming the court’s first black judge in 20 years.
From the bench, he had an intimate look at the problems afflicting Detroit. The city led the nation in poverty statistics, jobs were elusive, and “kids were killing each other over jackets and shoes,” Archer says. In 1990 he came to a conclusion: “I could do more if I ran for mayor.”
He served as Detroit’s mayor from 1994 until 2001. During his two terms, he brought $13 billion in new investments to the city and spearheaded neighborhood revitalization projects. “Dennis always did his homework,” says Thomas Gottschalk, former general counsel of General Motors Corporation, now of counsel at Kirkland & Ellis. “He always had a defensible plan for what he wanted to do.”
Archer, 67, now serves as chairman of 260-lawyer Dickinson Wright, where he works primarily in appellate litigation. Recently, he’s taken on cases for AT&T Inc. and Whirlpool Corporation, and advises Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., on gender and diversity issues.
His optimism for his hometown hasn’t faded. Even now, as the once-mighty automotive capital sinks under the weight of a faltering economy, Archer says that if Detroit could rebuild after the 1967 riot, it will eventually be able to revitalize its crumbling buildings and silent factories. “Detroit is on its way back,” he says. “We have a new day.”