Aclu History

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defends legal cases involving the violations of civil liberties. It is a staunch supporter of the rights laid out in the Constitution and its amendments.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded in 1920 by a group of people who were concerned that the Bill of Rights was nothing but a "parchment barrier" to governmental misdeeds. The ACLU is a legal organization that provides attorneys and legal expertise in cases where Civil Rights are allegedly being violated. The intent and purpose of the organization is to protect and defend the Constitutional rights and Civil Liberties of every individual in the United States, regardless of creed, race, religion, or other labeling. Sometimes this means they defend people whose basic beliefs are unpalatable to many people- the Ku Klux Klan, for example, or the Nation of Islam. The explanation given by the ACLU is that they do not defend these people because they agree with their ideology, but because they believe in their basic freedom to assemble and express themselves as they choose.

The basic goals of the ACLU are to protect the original Constitutional Rights of United States citizens as outlined in the Constitution and the 27 Amendments. Of particular, although certainly not exclusive interest, are the first ten amendments, which are referred to as the Bill of Rights. These ten amendments protect our basic freedoms, such as freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, etc. The Encyclopedia Britannica states the primary three areas of concentration for the ACLU as: "freedom of expression, conscience, and association; due process of law; and equality under the law".

During the first years of existence, the Civil Liberties Bureau had a close relationship with the Communist Party, but by 1940 co-founder, Roger Baldwin, became disenchanted with it and removed the communist members from the board of the ACLU. The ACLU continues to have a reputation as being a leftist organization, but in fact, it defends people all along the ideological spectrum from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal if it determines that their civil liberties are being infringed upon.

Among the founders of the ACLU, or as it was originally called, the Civil Liberties Bureau, were Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin. Eastman (1881-1928) studied law at New York University after getting her undergraduate degree at Vassar. This twice married mother of two was instrumental in passing workers compensation laws and did extensive research into industrial accidents. She was a women's suffrage activist who managed the Wisconsin Women's Suffrage campaign in 1912, and organized a New York Feminist Congress demanding equality for women in 1919.. (The women's suffrage amendment giving women the right to vote wasn't ratified until 1921, a year after the formation of the Civil Liberties Bureau.) Eastman helped found the Congressional Union, lead the New York Branch of the Women's Peace Party opposing World War I, and edited the Liberator, an anti-war journal. In 1928, the journal, The Nation printed these words of her, "She was for thousands a symbol of what the free woman might be."

Roger Baldwin (1884-1991) attended Harvard obtaining his bachelor's degree in 1904 and his master's in 1905. He taught sociology, worked as a probation officer and served as the secretary of the Civic League of St. Louis before heading the pacifist organization, American Union Against Militarism, a predecessor of the Civil Liberties Bureau and the ACLU. This organization defended conscientious objectors and draft resisters during World War I. In 1918 he served nine months of prison time for himself resisting the draft. After release he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Ultimately he co-founded the Civil Liberties Bureau, serving first as its director then later as its national chairman.

Until the ACLU's involvement no free speech defense trials had been won in the Supreme Court. With the ACLU this changed. Among many successful freedom defenses by the ACLU was the right of the Jehovah's Witnesses to enjoy freedom of the press which had been denied to them because of a Georgia statute requiring a permit to distribute literature of any kind. Other successful ACLU cases were the John Scopes "monkey trial" in 1925 permitting the teaching of evolution in schools, the James Joyce trial in which the ban was lifted from selling his book "Ulysses" in the United States, and the Henry Ford trial where his right to distribute anti-union materials was successfully defended.

The ACLU has fought a great many cases before the Supreme Court in defense of civil liberties. Among them, in 1941, the ACLU won a discrimination case referred to as Edwards v. California. This Supreme Court Case fought the "anti-Okie" law of California which prohibited the transporting of indigent people into the state. In 1943, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the ACLU in the religious discrimination case, West Virginia v. Barnette, and determined that Jehovah's Witness children could not be forced to salute the American flag. In Smith v. Allwright, 1944, the ACLU successfully fought a racial discrimination case which allowed blacks to vote in Texas's "white primary". The Supreme Court determined that even though the Democratic Party is a private organization, primaries are essential to the electoral process and all eligible voters must be included. In 1948 a censorship case called Shelley vs. Kramer determined that restrictive homeowner's covenants cannot be used to prevent the sale of houses to blacks. In 1952, Burstyn vs. Wilson determined that New York state was wrong to censor a movie called "The Miracle" for being sacrilegious, saying this violated the First Amendment.

In more recent cases, the 1992 case, Lee vs. Weisman determined that it is unconstitutional for officially sanctioned prayers to be read at graduation ceremonies. The 1993 case of J.E.B. vs. T.B. the Supreme Court decided that pre-emptory challenges could not be used to exclude jurors on the basis of sex. And in 1997, the Supreme Court decided that the 1996 Communications Act banning "indecent" speech violated First Amendment rights.

The ACLU has traditionally fought cases that were unpopular and controversial, but they stand by the American citizen's right to Constitutional freedoms. Those cases that may seem the most extreme and outlandish as they occur often later become beloved institutions of American jurisprudence.

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