The American Civil Liberties Union Archives document the activities of the Union in protecting individual rights from 1920 through 1995. The files contain materials on freedom of speech, expression, and association; due process of law; equality before the law; legal case files; and organizational records. Within these categories files reflect subject areas such as academic freedom, censorship, racial discrimination, aliens’ rights, privacy concerns, labor concerns, amnesty, and government loyalty and security. The files reflect work on litigation, advocacy and public policy, and various areas of interest connected with civil liberties. Materials include correspondence, court documents, memoranda, printed matter, minutes, reports, briefs, and legal files. Also included are materials from ACLU affiliate organizations, and the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee.
The records also document the ACLU’s predecessor organization, the National Civil Liberties Bureau (1917-1920) of the American Union Against Militarism.
1917-1950, 1886 bound volumes and 12
archival boxes (on 288 reels of microfilm)
1917-1995, 899.37 linear feet (2004 archival boxes, 20 half-size archival boxes, 21 archival shoeboxes, 20 16x20 photo boxes, 11 8x10 photo boxes, 9 film canisters, and 1 24x36 photo box)
Processed 1994-1996 by Paula Jabloner with the assistance of Assistant Archivist for Technical Services Daniel Linke, Special Collections Assistants Amy Escott, Claire Johnston, Alison McCuaig, and Tom Rosko, and students Laurie Alexander, Christina Aragon, Laura Burt, Jue Chen, Clement Doyle, Joe Faber, Said Farah, Boyd Goodson, Naomi Harlin, Janet Hine, Matthew Honahan, Katherine Johnson, Damian Long, Theresa Marchitto, Laura Myones, Olivia Kew, Grace Koo, Dan Sack, Bijan Salehizadeh, Tina Wang, Kyle Weston, and Elizabeth Williamson.
The processing was made possible by the generous support from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission and the John Foster and Janet Avery Dulles Fund.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was established in 1920 to protect the specific constitutional freedoms in the Bill of Rights. In 1915 the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) was formed to prevent United States involvement in World War I, with Crystal Eastman serving as executive secretary. Roger Baldwin became executive director in 1917. Immediately upon the United States’ entry in World War I, the AUAM was inundated with requests for aid to protect free speech, assembly and press which were threatened with political restriction, and to defend the rights of conscientious objectors. A separate organization was needed to safeguard these rights, and thus the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB) was established in the autumn of 1917 with Roger Baldwin as director.
The Trials of Growth, 1950-1995
The forty years between 1950 and 1990 were a time of significant growth for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Membership increased twenty-five times, and the Union’s impact on the legal landscape was broad and deep. One historian decreed that the decade after 1954 witnessed “the greatest advances in civil liberties in American history,” with significant gains for African Americans, women, students, the mentally-ill, prisoners, and others previously denied the full protection afforded by the U.S. Constitution. This period also saw the end to much censorship and the decoupling of church/state activity. The ACLU’s boom was not without the threat of bust, however. The organization restructured itself several times as it wrestled to reflect internally the principles it espoused publicly. Its expansion into new areas of civil rights along with its firm stand on the First Amendment produced episodes that threatened the ACLU’s viability.
In the years immediately following World War II, younger, non-founding members of the ACLU Board pressed for and eventually achieved a structural reorganization that led to the Union’s present configuration. In 1950, Roger Baldwin’s role changed from administrator to ambassador, in which he toured, lectured, and wrote on civil liberties issues. While at the helm of the ACLU, Baldwin preferred that the ACLU remain a small, centrally-controlled unit with himself at the helm, something that changed under the administration of his successor, Patrick Murphy Malin. A Swarthmore economist, Malin lacked Baldwin’s charm and speaking skills, but he was a successful administrator who oversaw the growth of the organization from 9,000 members in 1950 to over 60,000 by the time of his departure in 1962.
Much of this growth can be attributed to the expansion of local affiliates at the state and regional levels that had their own boards and acted upon local civil liberties issues. Many served as watchdogs - ensuring that civil rights victories won by the national ACLU in the high courts were enforced at the local level - while other affiliates were active in initiating cases, often with more absolutist positions than the national office. Though the affiliates had a voice in deciding the national chapter’s direction and policy since 1954, the organizational mechanism by which this was accomplished was cumbersome, changing several times. A workable method was found in 1967 with the creation of an 80-member board of directors comprised of representatives from all the affiliates and thirty at-large members. In addition, starting in 1959 and continuing to the present, the ACLU held biennial conferences to inform membership on pertinent topics, and to gather their views on civil liberties issues.
The Cold War and Civil Liberties
Historian Samuel Walker divides the ACLU’s area of activity between 1950-1990 into four broad areas: Cold War issues, censorship, church/state, and civil rights. The beginning of the Cold War, the rise of Joseph McCarthy and the re-emergence of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) created an atmosphere of intolerance and suspicion that not only posed a threat to individual civil liberties, but also destroyed the lives of many caught in the web spun by the Wisconsin Senator and his minions. The ACLU challenged the actions of McCarthy and HUAC on the tenet that only peoples’ acts, not their beliefs, should be penalized; anything less infringed on First Amendment principle.
While the ACLU had not always lived up to these same principles (in 1940 it ousted board member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn for her membership in the Communist Party), by the early 1950s the ACLU did not hesitate to aid in the publication of Merle Miller’s The Judges and the Judged. The book detailed HUAC’s and McCarthy’s red-baiting tactics, such as the prevalent use of unnamed (and hence unreliable or unanswerable) sources, guilt by association or exercise of one’s Fifth Amendment rights, and other questionable means that resulted in blacklistings and firings of many in unions, the film industry, and the teaching profession. The ACLU called for the abolition of HUAC, attacked any measure that punished Communist Party members or denied them rights based solely on party membership (Kent v. Dulles, for example), and sought fair and open investigations for the accused. In testament to its strict adherence to principle, the ACLU reminded the United States Senate of its obligation to provide McCarthy a fair hearing when it began censure proceedings against him in 1954.
The ACLU may have stood up for the rights of the accused more readily in 1950 than it did in 1940 because Roger Baldwin had developed a quid pro quo with J. Edgar Hoover in which the ACLU did not publicize FBI civil rights violations, and high-level Union officers cooperated with the Bureau. Baldwin and others thought that this cooperation, in conjunction with the Flynn resolution, inoculated the Union against attack as a Communist-front organization, freeing it to spend its energies defending constitutional principle, not itself. This arrangement, shocking when revealed in later years, did not prevent the FBI from continuing its massive surveillance of the ACLU and its members.
Red hunters cited national security as the basis for their actions, a justification that the government would continue to invoke and one that the ACLU contested in such cases as the Pentagon Papers (U.S. v. New York Times), Watergate (U.S. v. Nixon), and Iran-Contra. In 1969, 13 years after Joseph McCarthy’s death, the ACLU’s vigilance bore the ultimate fruit in Brandenburg v. Ohio in which the Supreme Court ruled that the government only could punish direct incitement to lawless action, thereby invalidating the Smith Act and all state sedition laws that restricted radical political thought.
Censorship and Freedom of Speech
The cousin to McCarthyism’s national security cause was the drive to protect people from printed materials and movies that promoted Communism or were perceived to erode community morals. Censorship attempts were, from the ACLU’s point of view, a fundamental attack on free speech, and over the course of three decades, the Union came to adopt an absolutist position, suffering no infringement in any form. Beginning with a 1952 Supreme Court victory in Burstyn v. Wilson/McCaffrey in which the high court declared that states cannot prohibit the screening of films based on state-based standards, the ACLU rang up a string of court victories. These, combined with changing market pressures, brought a complete end to many common censorship practices by the 1960s (Jacobellis v. Ohio), including the sharp curtailment of post office censorship (Hannegan v. Esquire, Inc.).
In a related decision, the Supreme Court gave a boost to freedom of the press in New York Times v. Sullivan which declared that public officials could not sue for defamation unless they proved “actual malice,” thereby providing the media with heretofore unknown freedom to report critically. Freedom of speech was extended, with the ACLU’s assistance, by placing it above property rights in Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, with the high court deciding that a shopping center could not forbid the distribution of political pamphlets on its premises.
Perhaps the most famous free speech issue of the ACLU’s history, and certainly one that had the greatest impact on the organization, was the pitched battle over American Nazis’ right to parade through Skokie, Illinois in 1977. Half the town’s 70,000 citizens were Jewish, and about 1,000 were Holocaust survivors, but this did not dissuade the ACLU (then headed by Aryeh Neier who was Jewish) from taking on the Nazis’ cause in what the ACLU considered a “classic First Amendment case.”
What the Union did not count on was a vigorous counter-argument by the Jewish Defense League, nor the loss of the support of its long-time ally, the American Jewish Congress. The ACLU won the court case, though the Nazis never marched in Skokie (ultimately parading at a site in downtown Chicago), but the highly-publicized case caused a backlash resulting in a large drop in membership. Neier, who had assumed the executive director’s post after the departure of John de J. Pemberton in 1970 and was accustomed to growing membership rolls and increasing budgets, found himself unable to reconcile the organization’s activities with available funds and resigned. His successor, Ira Glasser, initiated an emergency appeal to supporters and raised over $500,000, allowing him to restructure organizationally and financially, placing the ACLU back in the black and ready for the looming trials of the Reagan Revolution.
The ACLU earned the enmity of many for its efforts in enforcing the separation of church and state. Working to end state-sanctioned forms of religion, predominantly mainstream Protestantism, the ACLU sought to abolish school prayer, various government subsidies for religious education, and other connections between government and religious activity. Starting in 1947 with Everson v. Board of Education, the court delineated the Establishment Clause and the ACLU began to challenge long-entrenched government support for religious activity. Assailing school prayer, the ACLU won high court decisions to end it (Engel v. Vitale and Abingdon School District v. Schempp). It also re-fought the Scopes trial (Epperson v. Arkansas) in Arkansas which had required the teaching of creationism as well as evolution.
Frequently working in conjunction with Protestants United for the Separation of Church and State (later Americans United...) and the American Jewish Congress, the ACLU repeatedly clashed with the desires of the Roman Catholic Church on issues such as censorship, birth control, or school aid, often with the ACLU the victor. By the late 1960s, changes in public attitude toward church/state issues cemented the organization’s gains, as many mainstream churches accepted the delineation. However, fundamentalist religions continued challenging laws on public prayer issues into the 1990s, with little effect (Wallace v. Jaffree). Often, the affiliates bore the brunt of enforcement on church/state separation, acting to check sometimes frequent local infringements, thus proving Roger Baldwin’s assertion that “no victory ever stays won.”
The First Amendment clearly delineates free speech protection and church/state separation, and it was easy for the ACLU to pick up the banner for these causes. However, most of the ACLU’s work from the 1950s onward involved the more ambiguous and complex realm of civil rights, helping secure the rights or expanding the concept of those same rights for those who had been denied them in the past, such as African-Americans, women, homosexuals, children, the mentally-ill, prisoners, and the accused. In this multifaceted arena, the ACLU found itself embroiled both internally and externally, as the national organization sought to define its mission even as state affiliates and regional offices acted on their own accord, usually pushing further and harder than the national organization planned to go.
For example, during the Vietnam War ACLU moderates clashed with anti-war activists over the issue of representing Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician and prominent anti-war activist accused of interfering with the functions of government when he organized a “Stop the Draft” Week in 1968. Legal director Melvin Wulf first announced that the ACLU would represent Spock, only to be overruled by the national board, prompting the Massachusetts affiliate to take up Spock’s cause. Though ultimately the government would drop its case, pro-Spock members saw the case as an opportunity to raise questions about the Vietnam War’s legitimacy (as well as freedom of speech), while moderates viewed that issue as outside the ACLU’s scope. It also brought to the fore a long-simmering debate over whether the ACLU should participate directly in lawsuits or contribute amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs to other cases. After reviewing its most recent past activity, the Union decided that they had de facto become directly involved in cases and would continue as such.
Despite the organizational turmoil, a discussion of the ACLU’s legal success under the civil rights rubric threatens to become a numbing list of historic Supreme Court decisions. Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and tolled the end of government-endorsed segregation, was one of many cases in which the ACLU worked together with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to win rights for African Americans. The ACLU participated in all the major civil rights cases, arguing for freedom of speech and association rights that allowed the sit-ins, freedom rides, and other methods employed by the movement.
Other famous high court cases in which the ACLU partook include: Griswold v. Connecticut, which recognized a right to privacy, thereby laying the foundation for future abortion rights decisions; Tinker v. Des Moines and In re Gault, two cases recognizing that minors enjoyed some Constitutional protection, especially in regard to freedom of speech and due process; and Miranda v. Arizona, Mapp v. Ohio, Escobedo v. Illinois, and Gideon v. Wainwright, all of which expanded the rights of the accused, mandating an explanation of their rights and access to counsel, and placing limits on police action. (While these last cases caused many police groups to view the ACLU with hostility, the Union also defended a police officer’s right to belong to conservative political organizations such as the John Birch Society.)
As the concept of civil rights expanded, the ACLU started several special projects designed to focus solely on specific topics, including the Mental Health Law Project, the Project on Amnesty, the Privacy Project, the Women’s Rights Project, the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, and Prisoners’ Rights Project. Each project worked not only to change the law, but also to educate the public and raise their own funds.
The Children’s Rights Project is an example of how the ACLU changed itself from a small, centrally-controlled organization to an expansive confederacy of groups working to advance the goal of civil liberties. With its roots in the 1970s and located at the national organization’s office in New York City, the Children’s Rights Project was one of the focused projects financially seeded by the national organization. In 1995, it had become successful enough to incorporate itself and separate from the ACLU organizationally, physically, and financially. Another sign of growth was the start of the regional offices. In addition to the Washington, D.C. office (established 1938), the Southern Regional Office in Atlanta was organized in 1964 and the Mountain States Regional Office in Denver a few years later. Each handled cases particular to their geographic areas, as well as the usual range of cases that interested the ACLU. This led to varying interpretations of ACLU policy which resulted in the creation of the ACLU’s official policy guides, issued first in 1966 and revised periodically. These represented the ACLU’s attempt to coordinate and control the types of cases the Union would take on and to shepherd resources along coordinated lines.
Unfortunately, the national organization had trouble determining what path to take, as many individuals within the organization pulled in different directions. Exacerbating this problem was the ACLU’s restructuring which attempted to reconcile the many voices in the civil liberties debate. After the first reorganization, which opened up policy making to affiliates in 1954, the ACLU reorganized again in 1964, establishing a two-tiered system of governance in which affiliate representatives met twice a year and the board of directors in between. The dichotomy did not provide any stability, and three years later, the Union reorganized once again, establishing its one-body 80-member board. Throughout this time, the ACLU continued its board committees - some standing, others ad hoc - which focused on particular issues such as academic freedom or due process. In later years, the rise of the special projects would overtake some of the committees’ work, and the role of the committees would be reduced, though not eliminated.
The establishment of the Roger N. Baldwin/ACLU Foundation in 1967 was another major organizational change for the ACLU. The Union created the charitable fund-raising arm to pay attorneys to work on the ACLU’s behalf, signaling the end of the national organization’s long-standing reliance on volunteer lawyers. Though volunteer attorneys continued to play a significant role in many of the affiliates, even there some groups, such as the New York and Southern California affiliates, had a history of paying for legal representation. The Foundation’s purpose was to solicit funds from, among other places, other foundations, and during its early years much of its resources supported civil rights work in the South. In later years, it would provide initial funds for many of the special projects, gather any legal fees won by the project lawyers, and apply the funds against the project’s overhead costs.
These changes reflected not only the organization’s growth, but also its expanding interpretation of what constituted civil liberties work. Starting with the civil rights movement and continuing on through the Vietnam War and Watergate, the ACLU fought internally, often bitterly, over the scope and nature of its work. In this battle, the broad interpreters of the Union’s mission won out, as the organization took on cases involving abortion rights, women’s rights, affirmative action, and other areas, far from the basic principle of protecting First Amendment rights on which the Union was founded.
The 1980s and early 1990s
The ACLU emerged from the 1970s a victor of many legal battles and organizationally strong. However, despite its track record and strength, the ACLU would not ring up a string of Supreme Court victories in the 1980s and 1990s as it had in the previous two decades. Public sentiment, long an ally in many areas, had shifted against the organization, to the point that ACLU membership was identified as out-of-the-mainstream. In the 1988 presidential election, GOP candidate George Bush, willfully unaware of nearly fifty years of Supreme Court decisions, echoed the phrase of Joseph McCarthy in calling his opponent, Michael Dukakis, a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” for his opposition to a flag-salute requirement. The Bush accusation reflected the state of public awareness of civil liberties in the 1980s as the ACLU refought a number of battles over such issues as censorship, school prayer, creationism, and abortion rights. In the area of censorship, the Union withstood challenges from both right and left, the latter trying to censor publications under the rubric of protecting women. However, the ACLU stood firm in its belief in the absolute freedom of speech.
The U.S. Constitution was written
to guarantee that the rights of the minority would not be infringed upon by the
majority; the ACLU’s accomplishments during the twentieth century helped to
ensure that unpopular views would be tolerated, and indirectly, to remind
people that it is an uncommon nation that commonly tolerates challenges to the
(Based on In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU by Samuel Walker.)
The Project on Amnesty operated from 1972 to 1975, and these files (10.50 l.f.) document amnesty and clemency issues for draft evaders, military deserters, and veterans who held other than honorable discharges. The Project on Amnesty was headed by Henry Schwarzschild. In the fall of 1974 the American Civil Liberties Union merged the Military Rights Project, headed by David F. Addlestone, into the Amnesty Project. The Clemency Litigation Project, under Litigation Director Edwin J. Oppenheimer, also came under the umbrella of the Amnesty Project; it focused on litigation for war resisters. The staff of the Project on Amnesty and the Military Rights Project (MRP) both worked for the Clemency Program on the “exclusion” of individuals who had relinquished their American citizenship.
When it became clear that the Project on Amnesty would not continue beyond the end of 1975, Addlestone and Susan Newman, a staff attorney, sought new funding for the MRP. They were awarded a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to establish the National Military Discharge Upgrading Project in affiliation with Georgetown University Law School. The new project began operating on July 1, 1975.
The files are grouped under four headings: Administrative Files, Subject Files, Clemency Litigation Files, and Project Director’s Records (restricted), each arranged alphabetically. The materials grouped under Administrative Files record the history of the Project itself and the ACLU’s policy on amnesty. They contain correspondence, background material, statistics on the draft and the Vietnam War, and documents on President Gerald Ford’s establishment of the Presidential Clemency Board. There is substantive material covering “Separation Program Numbers” (SPNs), a code that the Army used to denote reasons why an individual was discharged. The ACLU ran a series of advertisements offering to inform veterans what the SPNs meant on their discharge papers.
The Subject Files, which contain the bulk of the material, include Schwarzschild’s correspondence with the staff of other amnesty organizations and the Selective Service System, attorneys in the Department of Defense and Justice, and members of the U.S. Congress. There are a few historical papers that cover amnesty in American history prior to the Vietnam War era, public statements on amnesty, and congressional testimonies. The files on other amnesty organizations cover many groups.
The Clemency Litigation Division Files include correspondence, project reports, and legal dockets. The Division handled a variety of military, draft, immigration, and Reconciliation Service cases.
Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, 1964-1976 [bulk dates 1964-1968] [Boxes 648682]
Founded in the summer of 1964 to assist the civil rights movement, the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC) solicited lawyers to provide volunteer legal representation for worthy or significant cases. Typically, a volunteer lawyer would travel to a small town in the South and spend one month working on cases in coordination with one of the LCDC’s regional offices. While these regional offices handled local cases, the headquarters in New York dealt with lawyer solicitation, fundraising, publicity, and other general activities. In December 1967 the LCDC was merged into the Roger Baldwin Foundation (the tax-exempt arm of the ACLU), thereby becoming the LCDC project of the Foundation. As the civil rights movement grew in popularity, the LCDC’s practical and ideological goals were met by other organizations, most notably the U.S. Justice Department.
The Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee subseries (14.70 l.f.) documents the administrative activities of the LCDC and legal case work done in the southern United States. It is divided into Administrative, Correspondence, Publicity, and Litigation Files. The Administrative Files contain minutes, field office files, miscellaneous documents, financial matters, and national ACLU material. The Correspondence consists mostly of Schwarzschild’s contacts with various individuals and organizations concerning LCDC administration. The Publicity Files contain statements, press releases, dockets, and newspaper clippings. The Legal Files include documents relating to the Sobol v. Perez case, in which LCDC’s New Orleans Field Office Director Richard Sobol was charged with practicing law without a Louisiana license, a measure that threatened to block any out-of-state lawyer from trying cases in Louisiana.