A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to upholding the Bill of Rights and defending the civil liberties and civil rights of all Americans.
The ACLU was founded in 1920 by Roger Baldwin
The ACLU’s first victory before the Court came in Gitlow v. New York
The American Civil Liberties Union celebrates a favorable Supreme Court ruling in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1939. The ACLU helps bring numerous cases involoving civil liberties before the Court.
Because of the conservative nature of the Court, the ACLU leadership remained divided over the extent to which it should be relied on for the protection of civil liberties. Felix Frankfurter, a member of the ACLU National Committee, argued that legislative protection of civil liberties provided a more secure and democratic foundation. What the Court could give, it could just as easily take away. Baldwin was also suspicious of legal strategies and focused his attention on direct action, particularly in support of labor. However, in 1931 ACLU lawyers successfully argued in Stromberg v. California that the conviction of a communist for displaying a red flag should be overturned because it violated the First Amendment. The decision represented the first time in the Court’s history that it ruled a state law unconstitutional on free speech grounds. In the 1930’s the ACLU launched a broad anticensorship campaign that focused on movie censorship, artistic expression, and the right to disseminate information regarding birth control. By the late 1930’s a growing number of legal victories fueled the ACLU’s increasing turn toward legalism. In 1941 the organization hired its first full-time staff attorney.
The ACLU first came to national attention with the 1926 Scopes “Monkey” trial. It had offered legal assistance to anyone willing to challenge a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. Although biology teacher John T. Scopes was convicted, the trial brought widespread publicity and support to the fledgling organization. The issues of academic freedom and the separation of church and state would remain central to the ACLU. During the 1930’s and 1940’s it sponsored key cases involving the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Later, in the landmark ACLU-sponsored cases of Engel v. Vitale
The ACLU’s commitment to civil liberties faltered in the 1940’s and 1950’s. During World War II (1941-1945), it unsuccessfully argued two cases involving Japanese
By the 1960’s the ACLU had resumed its unwavering defense of freedom of speech, winning such landmark cases as Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District
ACLU leadership played an important part in developing the legal strategy that resulted in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision and subsequently argued numerous cases supporting school desegregation, civil rights protesters, and affirmative action. During the 1970’s and 1980’s the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project played a critical role in the judicial enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, filing lawsuits against nearly two hundred jurisdictions. The ACLU also stood at the forefront of women’s rights and participated in two-thirds of cases involving gender discrimination heard by the Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
The ACLU was at the forefront of expanding legal and constitutional protections to groups that have traditionally been denied their rights, including women, minorities, students, juveniles, prisoners, the disabled, mental patients, welfare recipients, immigrants, criminal suspects, and homosexuals. By the late 1990’s the ACLU had a national office in New York City, a legislative office in Washington, D.C., and autonomous affiliates in all fifty states staffed by more than sixty full-time lawyers. It sponsored national projects devoted to specific civil liberties issues such as AIDS, capital punishment, education reform, privacy and technology, reproductive freedom, and workplace rights. Combining litigation with lobbying and public education, the ACLU helped create whole new areas of constitutional law and doctrine and played a pivotal role in the twentieth-century “rights revolution.”
Garey, Diane. Defending Everybody: A History of the American Civil Liberties Union. New York: TV Books, 1998. Lamson, Peggy. Roger Baldwin: Founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Murphy, Paul L. World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Reitman, Alan. The Pulse of Freedom: American Liberties, 1920-1970’s. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. Walker, Samuel. In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Evolution and creationism
First Amendment absolutism
Gideon v. Wainwright
Gitlow v. New York
Japanese American relocation
Miranda v. Arizona
Pollak, Walter H.
Religion, establishment of
Speech and press, freedom of
Stromberg v. California
War and civil liberties