Uncertain times bring a certain amount of anxiety. Concern about the future of our basic constitutional rights is something many of us are currently feeling. While the new era of political discourse has raised the specter of silencing citizens, it is good to remember those institutions created to protect our liberties. The ACLU, founded on this day in 1920, is just such an institution, and has deep roots in Greenwich Village.
Immediately following the end of the First World War, there began a nationwide campaign in the United State against a population that was feared and imagined to have divided loyalties. Immigrants and certain ethnic groups in the United States were systematically accused of having undue loyalty to their nations of origin. President Woodrow Wilson characterized these people as “hyphenated Americans” and warned against their threat to the liberty of our nation. Such people, he asserted, had “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” Furthermore, he added, “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.” From this fevered rhetoric and general atmosphere of fear-mongering was born a campaign now known as the “Palmer Raids.” Attorney General Mitchell Palmer began rounding up and deporting those deemed “radicals.” Thousands of immigrants and certain ethnic groups were arrested without warrants and without regard to basic protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution, including unlawful search and seizure and freedom of speech.
These egregious and unconstitutional acts of the U.S. Government were the basis for the foundation of the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU. The small group of founders of the group, whose stated mission was “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States,” was comprised of activists, labor leaders, community organizers, philosophers, suffragettes, lawyers, and a Supreme Court Jurist. This included Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, Walter Nelles, Morris Ernst, Albert DeSilver, Arthur Garfield Hays, Jane Addams, Felix Frankfurter, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Among the founders, Crystal Eastman and Arthur Garfield Hays were both residents of Greenwich Village, and both have been highlighted here in Off The Grid. Both of these Village residents are also featured on our civil rights map. These brave idealists had the foresight to establish what we now know to be the premier defender of American civil rights. The ACLU currently has over 500,00 members, almost 200 staff attorneys, and thousands of volunteer attorneys throughout the United States.
Some of the most famous cases the ACLU has been involved with include the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (defending the right of teachers in the South to teach evolution, made famous by the play and movie Inherit the Wind), the fight against the Japanese internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor (also highlighted by the inclusion of Isamu Noguchi and Mine Okubo on our civil rights map), Brown v. Board of Education (the Supreme Court case which ended ‘Separate But Equal’ and legal segregation in the United States), and the 1973 Supreme Court cases Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, which held that the right to privacy encompasses a woman’s right to decide whether she will terminate or continue a pregnancy. Further, in 2003, the ACLU helped persuade the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas to expand upon the privacy rights established in Roe when it struck down a Texas law making private consensual sexual intimacy between same-sex couples a crime.
The ACLU of today continues to fight government abuse and to vigorously defend individual freedoms including speech and religion, a woman’s right to choose, the right to due process, citizens’ rights to privacy, and much more. The ACLU has become so ingrained in American society that it is hard to imagine America without it.