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These web pages, maintained by the Champaign County ACLU, were last updated on March 10, 2023 by bi
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION
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."
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 loyalty-security program.
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 demonstrations.
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.