History of the ACLU

When Roger Baldwin founded the ACLU in 1920, civil liberties were in a sorry state.

Citizens were sitting in jail for holding anti-war 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.

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.

75 Years of ACLU Highlights

1920: The Palmer Raids

In its first year the ACLU worked at combatting the deportation of aliens for their radical beliefs (ordered by Attorney General Palmer), opposing attacks on the rights of Industrial Workers of the World and trade unions to hold meetings and organize, and securing release from prison for hundreds sentenced during the war for expression of antiwar sentiments.

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 attackon 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.

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 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 whosale violation of civil rights of Americans citizens in our history." The strongest voices against evacuation and relocation came from ACLU affiliates on the West Coast.

1950: Loyalty Oaths

During the Cold War era after World War II, Congress and many state legislatures oassed loyalty-oath laws requiring one group or 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.

1973: Impeach Nixon

The ACLU was the first major national organization to call for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. The ACLU 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

In Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the Supreme Court held that the constitutional right to privacy encompasses a pregnant woman's decision to bear a child or have an abortion. The ruling struck down state laws 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, 56 years after Scopes, the ACLU challenged a statute that called for the teaching of the biblical story of creation as a "scientific alternatiev" to the theory of evolution. The statute of, which fundamentalists saw as a model for other states, was ruled unconstitutional by District Judge William R. Overton. Creation-science, he said, was not a science but religion, and could not constitutionally be required by state law.

1989: Fall-Out from Attacks

Months after the ACLU had been attacked George Bush during the Presidential election campaign, 50,000 new members signed up in a surge of support for the organization.

1989: Texas v. Johnson

This First Amendment invalidation of the Texas flag desecration statute provoked newly inaugurated President George Bush to propose a federal ban on flag burning or mutilation. Congress swiftly obliged, but the Courts struck down the law a year later in United States v. Eichman -- in which the ACLU also filed a brief. Both ruings were big victories for symbolic political speech.

R.A.V. v. Wisconsin

In an important First Amendment victory. A unanimous Court struck down a local law banning the display, on public or private property, of any symbol "that arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender."

Lee v. Weisman

The Court ruled that any officially sanctioned prayer at public school graduation ceremonies violates the Establishment Clause.

1993: J.E.B. v. T.B.

In this women's rights victory, the Court held that a prosecutor could not use peremptory challenges to disqualify potential jurors based on their gender.

1994: Ladue v. Gallo

Unanimously, the Court struck down an Ohio town's ordinance that had barred a homeowner from posting a sign that said, "Say No to War in the Gulf -- Call Congress Now!"

1995: Lebron v. Amtrak

Extended the First Amendment to corporations created by, and under the control of, the government in the case of an artist who argued successfully that Amtrak had been wrong to reject his billboard display because of its political message.


ACLU Free Reading Room. A publications and information resource of the American Civil Liberties Union National Office.
Go Back to Shy David's American Civil Liberties Union Page.