So, if you are a USAmerican, do you highly value the Bill of Rights? If so, you might be, or might want to be, a supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was born 100 years ago, on January 19, 1920.
What’s the ACLU’s Purpose?
According to Samuel Walker’s nearly 500-page book In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (1990), the “essential feature of the ACLU is its professed commitment to the non-partisan defense of the Bill of Rights” (p. 5).
From its very beginning, the ACLU has had many critics. In his Introduction, Walker recounts how in the 1988 presidential election campaign, George Bush attacked Michael Dukakis, his Democratic opponent, for being a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.”
Twenty-five years later, Jerome R. Corsi, who (among other things) is a conspiracy theorist, published Bad Samaritans: The ACLU’s Relentless Campaign to Erase Faith from The Public Square.
On the opening page of his book, Corsi (b. 1946) cites these words from the Pledge of Allegiance, “. . . one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Because of their support for the rights of atheists also, the ACLU objects to those first four words that were added to the Pledge in 1954. But clearly, their main emphasis is, literally, “liberty and justice for all.”
And “all” means, well, all, even those who may harbor mistaken and/or wrongheaded ideas.
The ACLU has been the target of stringent criticism for defending, for example, the free speech right of Communist sympathizers in the U.S.—but also for defending the right to free speech by the KKK and Fred Phelps, the notorious pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.
In a 2010 article about Phelps (1929~2014), an ACLU spokesperson wrote, “To be clear: the ACLU strongly disagrees with the protestors' message in this case. But even truly offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment.”
She went on to say, “It is in hard cases like this where our commitment to free speech is most tested, and most important.”
Why’d the ACLU Start?
The ACLU was formed largely because the freedom of people in the late 1910s to speak out against the movement of the U.S. toward participation in World War I was being suppressed.
The primary founder of the organization was Roger Baldwin, a pacifist whose conscientious objection to “the Great War” was not recognized by the U.S. government and in 1918-19 he spent nine months in prison.
After the ACLU was formed in January 1920, Baldwin remained the executive director until 1950. Even though he retired from that position when he was 66 years old, he remained active in working for the civil liberties of all people.
In 1981, seven months before his death at the age of 97, Baldwin was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Carter.
Who’d Be Against the ACLU?
Through the years the ACLU has supported many noted people/causes, including John Scopes in the “monkey trial” of 1925, Japanese Americans after they were placed in internment camps in 1942, African Americans in the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit of 1954, the “reproductive freedom” of women since before the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, and gays/lesbians in the Obergefell v. Hodges lawsuit of 2015.
So, who would now be opposed to the ACLU? Well, among others, those who think a literal interpretation of the Bible ought to be (en)forced on all U.S. citizens in spite of the principle of the separation of church and state as well as those who think that it is acceptable to discriminate or legislate against minorities, gays and lesbians, immigrants/asylum seekers, and (desperate) women seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy.
Those who cherish the Bill of Rights, however, are deeply grateful for the meritorious work of the ACLU over the past 100 years.