American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) History

125 Broad Street, 18th Floor
New York, New York 10004-2400

Telephone: (212) 549-2500
Fax: (212) 549-2646

Not-for-Profit Company
Incorporated: 1920
Employees: 170
Sales: $42.2 million (2002)
NAIC: 813310 Social Advocacy Organizations

Company Perspectives:

The ACLU's mission is to fight civil liberties violations wherever and whenever they occur.

Key Dates:

American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) formed.
AUAM forms National Civil Liberties Bureau.
AUAM is reorganized as ACLU, headed by Roger Baldwin.
Scopes "Monkey Trial" takes place.
Baldwin retires from active involvement.
Baldwin dies at the age of 97.
ACLU gains notoriety in U.S. presidential campaign.
ACLU wins a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that gains civil rights for gays and lesbians.

Company History:

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a New York City-based nonpartisan, not-for profit corporation dedicated to the preservation and extension of constitutional liberties. Often controversial, the ACLU works through the legal system to forward its mission, initiating test cases and becoming involved in cases initiated by others. All told, the organization takes part in about 6,000 cases each year, primarily divided into three general areas: freedom of expression, equality before the law, and due process of law for everyone. Moreover, the ACLU runs nine ongoing national projects devoted to specific areas of civil liberties: AIDS, capital punishment, drug policy, litigation, lesbian and gay rights, immigrants' rights, prisoners' rights, reproductive freedom, voting rights, and women's rights. With a base of nearly 400,000 members and supporters, the organization employs some 300 staff people. In addition, it is assisted by thousands of volunteers, many are whom are attorneys working pro bono. In addition to its Manhattan headquarters, the ACLU maintains a legislative office in Washington, D.C., and a Southern Regional Office in Atlanta, Georgia, dedicated to voting rights and race discrimination. The ACLU also has 57 independently run affiliates that are active in every state as well as in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The organization is governed by an 83-member Board of Directors that includes a member from each state plus at-large members. The ACLU, which receives no government money, is funded by annual dues and contributions from members, as well as individual donations and grants from private foundations.

Key Founder Born to Wealthy Family in 1800s

The person most responsible for the founding and rise of the ACLU was Roger Nash Baldwin, the oldest child of a prominent Boston, Massachusetts-area family, whose heritage could be traced back to at least two people who came to America on the Mayflower. His father was a wealthy leather merchant, his mother, Lucy Cushing Nash, was an early feminist, and many of his relatives were active in social causes in keeping with the sense of noblesse oblige that permeated the upper classes of the day. As a teenager, he was involved in efforts at social reform through the Unitarian Church, to which his and other aristocratic families belonged. Baldwin enrolled at Harvard University in 1901, where he soon became a believer in the Progressive Movement that was taking place across America. After earning degrees in anthropology in 1905, Baldwin turned for career advice to his father's lawyer, Louis D. Brandeis, who would one day become a Supreme Court justice. It was Brandeis who convinced Baldwin to forego a business career in favor of devoting his life to social service.

In 1906, Baldwin moved to St. Louis on a twofold mission: to create a sociology department at Washington University, where he would also teach courses, and to head Self Culture Hall, a settlement house. During the next several years, Baldwin earned a national reputation as a social worker and became exposed to such influential political activists as Emma Goldman, who furthered the process of chipping away at his upper-crust sensibilities. For a time, he was even engaged to radical activist Anna Louise Strong. He gained national prominence in 1910 by being named the president of the St. Louis Civic League, which was instrumental in bringing "clean" government to St. Louis. When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 and soon threatened to envelop the United States, he opposed his country's entry. After America joined the war on the side of Great Britain and France, Baldwin moved to New York City in March 1917 to become secretary of the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), founded two years earlier by such well-known social activists as Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and Lillian Wald.

In May 1917, the U.S. Congress passed the Selective Service Act that established a military draft, and Baldwin was named to head AUAM's Civil Liberties Bureau (CLB), which would take on the plight of conscientious objectors and opponents to the war. At this stage, Baldwin still believed that he could draw on his upper-class connections to influence government officials and work cooperatively to come to reasonable accommodations, hoping to employ the CLB as an intermediary between authorities and conscientious objectors. Cordial relations between Baldwin and the government, however, gradually eroded. He condemned the harsh treatment to which conscientious objectors were often subjected, and he was very much opposed to the threat to free speech that came with the passage of the Espionage Act (later known as the Sedition Act). The legislation also caused division within the leadership of AUAM, concerned that CLB's work might put AUAM in violation of the law. In order to provide some insulation, a Civil Liberties Committee was formed in July 1917, and the break was finalized in October of that year when Baldwin and Crystal Eastman established the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB).

By now, from the perspective of many U.S. officials, Baldwin was nothing less than a menace. He was spied on by Military Intelligence and NCLB's offices were raided in August 1918. The following month he was indicted for refusing to comply with the new Selective Service Act. In a celebrated trial, he was sentenced to a year in prison, which proved to offer little hardship for Baldwin. While working as a cook and a gardener, he established a reading and writing program for inmates, a prisoner's welfare league, and even a dramatic society and glee club, relying heavily on the political influence of sympathetic socialites.

ACLU Emerges in 1920

Baldwin was released from prison after ten months and, rather than immediately resume his duties at the NCLB, he decided to taste the working life for several weeks. He performed stints as a day laborer before becoming a scab at the Homestead Steel Mills, where he briefly operated as a spy for the striking union before being found out and fired. He returned to the NCLB during the final weeks of 1919, at a time when a "Red Scare" led to the government passing new sedition laws that allowed participants in "un-American" activities to be arrested without a warrant and held without trial. It was also a time of considerable labor unrest. To help refocus the mission of the NCLB away from conscientious objectors to the championing of labor rights, Baldwin felt it was necessary to change the name of the organization. The name he chose was the American Civil Liberties Union, which succeeded the NCLB in January 1920 following a reorganization. It was co-directed by Baldwin and NCLB attorney Albert DeSilver. The ACLU attempted to operate on funds raised from annual dues of $2, and even though it boasted 1,000 members by the end of its first year, the organization was strapped for cash. A key benefactor of the early years was Charles Garland, a rich Bostonian who donated money that was used to establish the American Fund for Public Service, which then financed legal defense cases and supported other efforts at social reform.

When the ACLU launched its activities, civil liberty violations took place on a number of fronts in America, as exemplified by a sampling of the incidents that caught the organization's attention in its first year: two organizers of the Nonpartisan League were forced by a mob to tar themselves in Kansas; an Oregon mayor refused to allow muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens to lecture at a public meeting that was deemed to be un-American; seven people in Washington state were jailed for two months for selling a union newspaper; a man in Massachusetts was denied citizenship because of his religious stand as a conscientious objector; and, in Alabama, union coal miners were denied the right to meet for any purpose. In the first several years of its existence, the ACLU was especially devoted to keeping tabs on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, whose members number one million in 1921. At the time, the Justice Department made little effort to monitor the Klan. In keeping with the ACLU's mission to protect the rights of those individuals that government leaders might disagree with, the ACLU also represented the KKK, supporting the group's right, in the words of Baldwin, "to parade in their nightgowns and pillowcases, and their right to burn fiery crosses on private property." In some cases, the ACLU took the side of the KKK over the NAACP.

"Monkey Trial" of 1925 Puts ACLU on the Map

The case that first brought widespread notoriety to the ACLU was the 1925 "Monkey Trial" that became the basis for the play, and later film, Inherit the Wind. In this case, the ACLU was looking to make a "friendly challenge" to a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The ACLU openly advertised in the state for a teacher willing to participate. The greater purpose, however, was to construct a case that could then be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court. The man induced to help was John T. Scopes, who coached football and taught physics on a part-time basis. He was talked into participating in the test case by a local booster who thought the community might benefit from the publicity. Scopes barely qualified for his role, since he never actually taught evolution, but he had once used an evolution textbook to help some students prepare for a test. As it turned out, the friendly challenge drew international attention, setting the standard for all modern media circuses to follow, due in large part to the men who stepped forward to argue the case. Representing Scopes was famed criminal attorney Clarence Darrow, who made his reputation representing labor leaders. On the other side was William Jennings Bryan, who was famous for his unsuccessful presidential campaigns and skills as an orator. When the case was stripped down, the question presented to the jury was simple: did Scopes violate the Tennessee law or not. In the end, Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but the subsequent appeal thwarted the ACLU's larger plans. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed Scopes conviction on a technicality but upheld the statute, leaving the ACLU with nothing to appeal. The Tennessee law stood for another 40 years. Moreover, many textbook publishers, in light of the Scopes trial, chose to simply drop Darwin's theory of evolution from their textbooks rather than face legal complications. As a consequence, the ACLU's most celebrated case was perhaps its greatest defeat.

Over the course of its first 25 years, the ACLU was involved in other noteworthy cases. It fought the U.S. Customs Service ban on the sale of James Joyce's novel Ulysses, lifted in 1933. The organization was successful in its arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1939 when it opposed a Jersey City ban on political meetings held by union organizers. During World War II, the ACLU took the highly unpopular stand of opposing the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, an act for which the U.S. Congress would formally apologize 50 years later. It was also during the war years that Baldwin and the ACLU ended a dalliance with communism, prompted by the Nazi-Soviet pact that Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler signed in 1939. Baldwin led the move to purge communist members from the ranks of the ACLU, an act which many in the organization considered a major breach in principle and almost resulted in splitting the organization in two.

Baldwin was involved in a number of outside causes that adversely affected the ACLU's operation. In 1949, when he turned 65, he retired as executive director, after which he played an elder statesman's role, devoting much of his time to the subject of international civil liberties. He enjoyed robust health and was quite active until his early 90s. He died on August 26, 1981 at the age of 97. In his biography of Baldwin, Robert C. Cottrell reflected on Baldwin's achievements: "During the six-decade span of his involvement with the modern civil liberties movement, Baldwin witnessed expanded protection of key portions of the Bills of Rights. ... The ACLU leaders, guided by their long-time executive director, waged public relations wars, undertook groundbreaking litigation, and wrestled with public officials, while demanding an expansive interpretation of the Bill of Rights. Consequently, by the close of Baldwin's life, First Amendment provisions involving freedom of speech, the press, assemblage, and religion had been brought closer to actuality than at any point in American history."

The ACLU after Baldwin

In the postwar years, during the height of the Cold War, the ACLU fought against loyalty oaths that federal workers were enjoined to swear and state laws that required schoolteachers to avow they were not members of the Communist Party. The ACLU furthered its commitment to racial justice by involving itself in the cause of school desegregation in the 1950s (in particular the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education) and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Also during the 1960s, the ACLU opposed the criminal prohibition of drugs, and thereafter opposed the on-going "war on drugs." Reproductive rights came to the forefront in the early 1970s with the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, which extended the right to privacy to include the right of a woman to choose abortion. With the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, the ACLU opposed the "ultimate sanction" on grounds that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment and disproportionately affected minorities and the poor.

In 1988, the ACLU became swept up in national politics when Republican George H.W. Bush made Democrat Michael Dukakis's ACLU membership an issue in the presidential campaign. While the Republicans were successful in vilifying the ACLU with a large section of the American public, the attention that came to the organization also led to a surge in memberships and fund raising. The ACLU's reputation among conservatives was further hardened in 1989 when it was successful in having the U.S Supreme Court invalidate a Texas law that made flag desecration a punishable offense. The ACLU then succeeded in having the Supreme Court recognize the civil rights of gays and lesbians as a result of the 1996 case Romer v. Evans. Over the years, the ACLU has also riled people on the left. The most celebrated example was its 1978 defense of a neo-Nazi group to march through Skokie, Illinois, an act that led to a decline in ACLU membership.

Critics from both the left and the right have contended that the ACLU altered its mission over the final 30 years of the 20th century. In a 1988 article in The New Republic, Mark S. Campisano wrote, "The ACLU has strayed very far from its old agenda of civil liberties and civil rights. A new agenda of exotic leftwing causes now occupies most of the Unions time and energy." In the words of Christopher Clausen, writing for The New Leader in 1994, "The organization is obsessed with abortion." A second area of undue focus, in his opinion, was the organization's "dogged support for the discriminatory forms of affirmative action." The ACLU also faced questions from within its own ranks. A 1993 Time magazine article reported: "One essential conflict is between strict libertarians, for whom individual rights are as sacred as Moses' tablets, and new-breed egalitarians who favor minority and feminist causes and are more willing to see civil liberties give ground in the name of justice and equality." Time also noted that "Insiders disagree on whether the shifting views are fostered by the A.C.L.U's in-house affirmative-action plan that requires the board, formerly dominated by white males, to be at least 50 percent female and 20 percent minority. Whatever the reason, old soldiers like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz ... asserts that the 'A.C.L.U. is a very different organization today.' To him, the key tenet of the A.C.L.U. faith is support for free-speech rights for 'causes that you despise.' Without that, 'all you are is a political activist.'" Opposed to this old guard thinking were ACLU board members like "gay activist Tom Stoddard, who says the absolutists are seeking 'otherworldly vindication on one constitutional right without recognizing that all rights have value and can be reconciled.' To him, both equality and liberty must be weighed and many rights enshrined." Ever controversial, the ACLU entered a new century continuing to play its role as a national gadfly.

Further Reading:

  • Campisano, Mark S., "Card Games: The ACLU's Wrong Course," New Republic, October 31, 1988, p. 10.
  • Carlson, Margaret, "Spotlight on the A.C.L.U.," Time, October 10, 1988, p. 36.
  • Clausen, Christopher, "Taking Liberties with the ACLU," New Leader, August 15, 1994, p. 12.
  • Cottrell, Robert C., Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, 504 p.
  • Garey, Diane, Defending Everybody, New York: TV Books, 1998, 240 p.
  • Ostling, Richard N., "A.C.L.U.--Not All That Civil," Time, April 26, 1993, p. 31.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.60. St. James Press, 2004.