A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL
When Roger Baldwin founded the ACLU in 1920, civil liberties were
in a sorry state. Citizens were sitting in jail for holding antiwar
views. U.S. Attorney General Palmer was conducting raids upon aliens
suspected of holding unorthodox opinions. Racial segregation was the
law of the land and violence against blacks was routine. Sex discrimination
was firmly institutionalized; it wasn't until 1920 that women even
got the vote. Constitutional rights for homosexuals, the poor, prisoners,
mental patients, and other special groups were literally unthinkable.
And, perhaps most significantly, the Supreme Court had yet to uphold
a single free speech claim under the First Amendment.
"We must remember that a right lost
to one is lost to all. The ACLU remembers and it acts. The cause
it serves so well is in an imperative of freedom."
--Wm Reece Smith, Jr., former president American
The ACLU was the first public interest law firm of its kind, and
immediately began the work of transforming the ideals contained in
the Bill of Rights into living, breathing realities.
1920: The Palmer Raids
In its first year the ACLU worked at combating the deportation of
aliens for their radical beliefs (ordered by Attorney General Palmer),
opposing attacks on the rights of the Industrial Workers of the World
and trade unions to hold meetings and organize, and securing release
from prison for the hundreds sentenced during the war for expression
of antiwar opinions.
1925: The Scopes Case
When Tennessee's new anti-evolution law became effective in March,
1925, the ACLU at once sought a test of the statute's attack on free
speech and secured John T. Scopes, a young science teacher, as a plaintiff.
Clarence Darrow, a member of the Union's National Committee and an
agnostic, headed the ACLU's volunteer defense team. Scopes was convicted
and fined $100. On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the
statute but reversed the conviction.
1933: The Ulysses Case
Federal Judge John M. Woolsey in New York rendered an historic anticensorship
decision that admitted James Joyce's Ulysses into the US after a long
legal battle supported by the ACLU.
1939: Mayor Hague
Mayor Frank ("I Am the Law") Hague of Jersey City claimed
the right to deny free speech to anyone he thought radical. The ACLU
took Hague to the Supreme Court, which ruled that public places such
as streets and parks belong to the people, not the mayor.
1942: Japanese Americans
Two and a half months after Pearl Harbor, 110,000 Japanese Americans,
two-thirds of whom were citizens, were evacuated from their West Coast
homes and relocated in a series of inland U.S. concentration camps.
The episode was a national tragedy, rightfully called by the ACLU
"the worst single wholesale violation of civil rights of American
citizens in our history." The strongest voices against evacuation
and relocation came from the ACLU affiliates on the West Coast.
1950: Loyalty Oaths
During the Cold War era after World War II, Congress and many state
legislatures passed loyalty-oath laws requiring one grouper another,
particularly public school teachers, to swear that they were not Communists
or members of any "subversive organizations."Throughout
the decade the ACLU fought a running battle against the government's
1954: School Desegregation
On May 17, 1954, in Brown v. The Board of Education, the Supreme Court
issued its historic decision that segregation in public schools violates
the 14th Amendment. The ACLU joined the legal battle that resulted
in the Court's decision.
1960: Civil Rights Movement
From the first lunch counter sit-in in 1960, through the freedom rides
and later mass marches, The ACLU supported the civil rights movement's
goal of equality and its means of achieving that goal through peaceful
1973: Impeach Nixon
The ACLU was the first major national organization to call for the
impeachment of President Richard Nixon. The Union listed six grounds
for impeachment affecting civil liberties--specific, proved violations
of the right of political dissent; usurpation of Congressional war-making
powers; establishment of a personal secret police that committed crimes;
attempted interference in the trial of Daniel Ellsberg; distortion
of the system of justice; and perversion of other federal agencies.
1973: Abortion Decriminalized
Supreme Court held that the constitutional tight to privacy encompasses
a pregnant woman's decision whether to bear a child or have an abortion.
The ruling struck down state law that had made the performance of
an abortion a criminal act. The ACLU was and remains active in the
courts to protect that right.
1981: Creationism in Arkansas
In Arkansas, 35 years after Scopes, the ACLU challenged a statute
that called for the teaching of the biblical story of creation as
a "scientific alternative" to the theory evolution. The
statute, which fundamentalists saw as a model for other states, was
ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge William R. 0verton Creation-science,
he said, was not science but religion, and could not constitutionally
be required by state law.
1982: Voting Rights Extended
More than 15 months of grassroots lobbying by the ACLU and other
groups paid off when the Senate, following the example of the house,
overwhelmingly voted to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1955.
1987: Block Bork
The ACLU. changing a 55-year-old policy of neutrality on Supreme
Court candidates, mounted a national campaign to defeat the nomination
of Judge Robert Bork. Bork, the ACLU said, posed an extraordinary
threat to fundamental liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights,
and to the role of the Supreme Court as the guardian of those rights.
A majority of Senators agreed and rejected his nomination.
1989: Siege of ACLU
After being made an issue in an election campaign for the first time
in its history, when presidential candidate George Bush attacked the
ACLU in the fall of 1988, the organization found months later that
its membership had risen by over 50,000 in response to the attacks.