1920 January 19

ACLU Founded: Fight For Civil Liberties Begins


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded on this day, the occasion marked by the first official meeting of the Executive Committee. The ACLU grew out of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, originally a committee of the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), in 1917. Roger Baldwin (born January 21, 1884) had been co-Director of the National Civil liberties Bureau with Crystal Eastman, and he served as Director of the ACLU until retiring in 1950. On the National Civil Liberties Bureau, see the events of July 4, 1917; November 1, 1917.

The founding of the ACLU marked the beginning of a long campaign to defend civil liberties that continues today. In its first years, the ACLU had about 1,000 members; today it has 500,000, with affiliates in every state.

In its early years, the ACLU’s civil liberties agenda was quite limited by today’s standards. In the 1920s, the organization focused on the suppression of speech by radicals, the First Amendment rights of workers and labor unions, amnesty for World War I political prisoners, and racial justice. It expanded over the next decades, and a dramatic change occurred in the 1960s, when it undertook the defense of women, students, prisoners and mental health patients, abortion, and the rights of lesbian and gay Americans. From the 1970s onward, national security became an increasingly important issue.

Read the Minutes of the first meeting:

Read: Samuel Walker, In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (1990)

Read the ACLU FBI File (not the complete file): http://vault.fbi.gov/ACLU

Learn about the ACLU today: www.aclu.org

And about the ACLU’s First Amendment battles in the 1920s and 1930s: Laura Weinrib, The Taming of Free Speech (2016)

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