During the Civil Rights era, my friend’s sister was registering black voters in the South.
One day, my friend received a phone call from his sister informing him that she had participated in a peaceful demonstration and was now in an Alabama jail. Immediately after hanging up, my friend called the American Civil Liberties Union and three hours later his sister was released.
That was over 40 years ago, and that’s about how long I’ve been a proud ACLU member.
In 1919 and 1920, the U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer rounded up thousands of so-called radicals, denied them their Constitutional rights, and deported many.
Responding to these extra-legal acts, a group of civil libertarians including Roger Baldwin, Morris Ernst, Arthur Garfield Hays, Jane Addams, Felix Frankfurter (later a Supreme Court Justice) and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, founded the ACLU.
While the purpose of the organization has evolved, it is best known as a defender of the Bill of Rights.
These first 10 amendments to our Constitution were written because in 1787-’88, there was a question as to whether the colonies would ratify our founding document.
These amendments were designed to allay the fears of those who opposed the Constitution by guaranteeing personal freedoms and placing clear limitations on the powers of the government.
Let me briefly outline what some of them do.
The 1st guarantees freedom of speech and the press; the controversial 2nd protects the right to bear arms; the 4th prohibits unreasonable search and seizure; the 5th prohibits self-incrimination and double jeopardy; the 7th guarantees a trial by jury while the 8th prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.
Together, they constitute the bulwark of our democracy and distinguish us from totalitarian nations.
Today, the American Civil Liberties Union has more than 1.2 million members, nearly 300 staff attorneys, thousands of volunteer lawyers and an annual budget of over 100 million dollars.
With offices in all 50 states, the ACLU “continues to fight government abuse and to vigorously defend individual freedoms.” In order to understand fully the impact the ACLU has had, one should examine some of the landmark cases in which it’s been involved in the past 87 years.
In 1925, John T. Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Tennessee, violated a state law which prohibited the teaching of evolution. The ACLU secured the services of Clarence Darrow while Tennessee was represented by
William Jennings Bryan.
While Scopes was initially found guilty, the conviction was overturned due to a sentencing error.
The so-called “Monkey Trial” made national headlines and it helped persuade the public of the importance of academic freedom.
In 1942 during World War II, 110,000 Japanese who were American citizens were interned in concentration camps.
The ACLU stood almost alone in denouncing the federal government and President Franklin Roosevelt for denying these Americans their constitutional rights.
In 1954 racial segregation in public schools was outlawed by a 9-0 unanimous vote of the Supreme Court. Joining with NAACP attorneys, this overturned an 1896 decision in Plessey v. Ferguson which held that racial segregation in public facilities did not violate the Constitution as long as they were “separate but equal.”
In 1969 during the Vietnam War, student protestors wore armbands to school and were suspended. The court cited the free speech clause in the first amendment protecting the students’ rights.
In 1973, the historic Roe v. Wade decision established a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. The Court held that there was a Constitutional right of privacy, but the battle for reproductive rights goes on to this day.
In 2005, a case similar to Scopes arose. Biology teachers in some Pennsylvania public schools were required to present “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution.
The court held that this was a violation of the separation of church and state thus vindicating the ACLU position.
In 2015, lesbian and gay activists won a major victory when the Supreme Court upheld the freedom to marry.
This came on the heels of another A.C.L.U. breakthrough two years earlier when the Court brought an end to the Defense of Marriage Act.
These cases reveal the nature and scope of the work performed by the A.C.L.U. Every year it is involved in thousands of lawsuits and it can boast of trying more cases before the Supreme Court than any other private organization. But this does not mean that it is without its critics. Some have said that the letters stand for the American Communist Lawyers Union. And Diane Drew, has written:
“Ever notice how the American Civil Liberties Union…seems to take on only cases that are anti-Christian — pro-sodomy, pro-abortion, pro-pornography, pro euthanasia [and] pro-homosexual.
But Ms. Drew tips her hand when she goes on to say that the ACLU “knows nothing of true liberty, which can only be found in Jesus Christ, when one is set free from the bondage of… sin…”
There have been two occasions in the ACLU’s history when the organization suffered a crisis of conscience.
The first occurred in the 1940s and ‘50s. This was a dark era in America’s history. Fear of communism stalked the land. It was the time of the Smith Act, “McCarthyism,” and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
A joke making the rounds was that you could find “a red under every bed.” In 1939-1940, a struggle ensued within the A.C.L.U. which voted to exclude Communists from its leadership positions.
This led to the formation of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, a more radical group, which in 1998 merged into the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Without getting further into the weeds of this very complicated issue, suffice it to say that in 1968 the ACLU rescinded its position and in 1970 posthumously reinstated Elizabeth Flynn.
In 1978, the second, and in some ways more significant, issue arose. Nazis wanted to march through Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, where many survivors of the Holocaust lived.
The ACLU chose to defend the Nazi’s free speech rights in spite of the pain they knew this would cause the Jewish survivors of the concentration camps.
The ACLU took the position that everyone’s Constitutional rights (even Nazi’s) must be defended.
“It is easy to defend freedom of speech” wrote the ACLU “when the message is…reasonable. But the defense…is most critical when the message is one most people find repulsive.”
This stand cost the organization dearly.
Members left in droves, including my friend mentioned at the beginning of this letter. Although conflicted, I did not drop out.
I am writing this piece because, as a former Social Studies teacher, I believe that every student in America needs to know about this organization.
One need not slavishly preach about the “good work” it does.
One might just as easily treat it as “controversial” and challenge students to study the pros and cons of positions it has taken and then defend whatever they agree with.
Lest the reader think I am naive enough to believe that my opinions will be universally adopted, including the wish that all high school students be familiar with the work of the American Civil Liberties Union, I can assure you I am not.
But there is consolation in the words of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg written In a letter to their sons just hours before their execution.
They said that they “were comforted in the sure knowledge that others [will] carry on after us.”
This belief in the continuity of the mission gives hope that, after we are gone, new voices will rise up echoing our cry for justice.
Dr. Hal Sobel