'I was afraid to walk the streets of our community': ACLU President Deborah Archer shares how discrimination fueled her career

Brittany Jones-Cooper
·3-min read

The fight for civil rights isn't just a job for Deborah Archer. It's a personal mission.

"I remember being 8 or 9 and waking up to find that someone had vandalized our home. They spray-painted 'KKK' on our house," Archer tells Yahoo Life. "It was a formative experience that has really shaped the trajectory of my life."

In February, Archer became the president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — the nonprofit organization committed to defending the rights of U.S. citizens. Archer is the first Black president of the ACLU, an accomplishment she sees as a milestone.

"I think for many people, my election holds importance because of the role the ACLU has played throughout history, its being in the forefront of the fight to protect civil rights and civil liberties," says Archer. "But there's a big part of me that's still frustrated that in 2021, we're still tackling so many firsts for Black women and people of color. But it doesn’t change the fact that I'm really proud to be a part of that history."

Archer grew up in Windsor, Conn., as part of the only Black family on the block and one of three in the entire community. She remembers neighbors ensuring that her family felt unwelcome, and she recalls being afraid to walk down the street or play in the park.

"I needed to figure out why, what causes this kind of injustice? What would try to push our family from our home? And I decided to ultimately work to challenge that kind of discrimination that my family and I experienced then and that I continued to experience throughout my career," Archer says.

Choosing a path in law, Archer graduated from Yale Law School in 1996 and went on to become a legal fellow at the ACLU. Since 2009, she has been a member of the ACLU board, general counsel and member of the executive committee of the board since 2017. Additionally, Archer was assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and is currently a professor at New York University School of Law.

Since 2016, the ACLU sued the Trump administration more than 400 times for injustices like the Muslim travel ban, reducing abortion access for women and using tear gas on protesters. In 2020, the fight for racial justice was reignited after the killing of George Floyd, and as protesters took to the streets, Archer immediately understood the weight they carried.

"I don't think anyone could come out of this year where we have seen racial inequality and injustice laid bare in the way that we have and not recognize that advancing racial justice has to be at the forefront of the work we all do," says Archer.

While she is hopeful that the Biden administration will be more cooperative when it comes to protecting and defending the civil rights and liberties of Americans, Archer and the ACLU are ready to push for progress where it’s needed. She sees this era as an opportunity and cites feeling an obligation to do the work in dismantling inequality and the legacy of colonization, slavery and Jim Crow in the United States.

"It's a fight that we have to engage in on multiple fronts; the courtroom is one, but also changing the conversation," says Archer. "Changing the narrative, building power in our communities, building momentum for change — those are all things that should be viewed as success as well."

Produced by Jacquie Cosgrove.

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