Celebrating 100 Years of the ACLU—and Its Next Century

The progress we've made and the fights that remain are both worth recognizing.

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The ACLU, the nation’s premier defender of our civil liberties, was founded on this day in 1920—the same year American women finally got the right to vote. Those two events are connected, in part because the existence of the ACLU can be traced to a woman: an extraordinary lawyer, organizer, and suffragist named Crystal Eastman.

In 1917, Eastman was director of a prominent antiwar organization, the American Union Against Militarism. But after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, it became dangerous to be an outspoken pacifist. That year, the government shut down The Masses, a vibrant politics and arts magazine Eastman and her brother Max had been publishing. Max was among a number of antiwar activists who were criminally prosecuted for speaking out against the war and draft.

So Crystal pivoted. She dreamed up the idea of starting a National Civil Liberties Bureau to defend conscientious objectors and dissidents by invoking a constitutional principle that was at the time more theory than reality: The government should not be allowed to punish people for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech, no matter how radical or unpopular that speech might be.

That Bureau became the ACLU, with the expanded mission of defending everyone’s constitutional rights across the board. One of the young ACLU’s first actions was to publish a pamphlet (the 1920s equivalent of a blog) called “The Fight for Free Speech.” In every decade since, the ACLU has spearheaded litigation to empower people, not government, to decide what we will say—against repressive red scare tactics during the McCarthy era, against government attempts to censor the internet, and in thousands of cases brought by ACLU affiliates around the country to protect the expressive rights of students, teachers, artists, journalists, government employees, and activists—regardless of whether or not we agree with their views.

Protecting First Amendment rights has often served other ACLU goals, too, like promoting equality. In 1936, for example, the ACLU challenged the City of Boston’s decision to ban Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour for daring to include a theme of lesbianism. And, building on work fighting racial discrimination dating back to the 1930s (when the ACLU argued that the “Scottsboro Boys” had been unfairly convicted), the ACLU vigorously defended opportunities for civil rights activists of the 1960s to demonstrate and organize for racial justice. According to voting rights hero John Lewis, the civil rights movement without the First Amendment would have been like “a bird without wings.”

Protesters Marching for the Scottsboro Boys, 1934

Hundreds of demonstrators in Washington D.C. marching against the trials in the Scottsboro case in 1934.

(Image credit: Bettmann)

Another of the ACLU’s first acts was to challenge the constitutionality of the Palmer Raids in 1920: mass arrests, abusive treatment, and deportations of law-abiding immigrants from Eastern Europe or Italy who were stereotyped as dangerous radicals. The fight against xenophobia continued during World War II. Led by our California affiliates, the ACLU was among the first national organizations to oppose the wholesale incarceration of Japanese Americans. And, after 9/11, we fought the anti-Muslim excesses of the “War on Terror;” it was ACLU lawyers who exposed our government’s complicity in torture of terrorism suspects.

The last three years have brought the fight against xenophobia back to the forefront, and battling inhumane immigration policies that terrorize immigrants and separate families will continue to be a priority as we move into our second century. In addition to winning judicial rulings against some very cruel and unfair practices, the ACLU has reunited more than 2,000 people with their families. Still, the Trump administration keeps expanding its attacks on the immigrant communities that have defined our national identity, all but destroying the asylum process, massively expanding the detention of immigrants, and otherwise severely limiting who can secure visas to enter this country. Someone asked me how the ACLU has been able to respond so quickly and comprehensively to this tsunami of anti-immigrant laws. I replied that we have, after all, been practicing for 100 years.

Also following us into the next 100 years: our fight for women’s equality and reproductive justice. Eastman had, after all, been an active organizer for women’s suffrage too. When the 19th Amendment passed, most suffragists declared victory; Eastman published a famous article called “Now We Can Begin,” arguing that getting the vote was only the first step to full equality for women. Eastman also co-authored the Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1923, to help women achieve social, economic, and political equality.

The ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, founded by now-Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the early 1970s, convinced the courts to take gender discrimination claims seriously. But in many ways, we are still just beginning to realize the equality that suffrage allowed us to pursue. Today’s obstacles to women include denial of access to family planning and abortion services. In 2019 alone, the ACLU fought 40 abortion bans and restrictions in 14 different states and at the federal level. We sued Frontier airlines for discriminating against pregnant and breastfeeding employees. And we fought to overturn sexism in education: ending body-shaming and racialized awards that “honored” cheerleaders with the biggest butt and largest breasts in Wisconsin, and a New Jersey training protocol that instructed teachers to treat boys and girls differently based on debunked “gender science.”

Event, White-collar worker, Job, Employment, Businessperson, Conversation, Uniform, Formal wear,

Frontier Airlines pilot Randi Freyer, flight attendant Melissa Hodgkins, and pilot Brandy Beck in the office of the ACLU of Colorado in Denver in 2019.

(Image credit: Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

As the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts have been packed with extremely conservative new appointees, there is considerable danger that the Court might overrule hard-won civil liberties precedents. If the Court overrules Roe v. Wadewhich safeguarded a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, we will be doubling down on our ongoing battles for reproductive freedom in individual states. If the courts are hostile to civil liberties claims, we will go to elected officials and legislators—one reason why we are working hard to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to vote and have their vote count equally. And if legislatures are not willing to recognize fundamental American principles—like fairness in elections and in the criminal justice system—we will use ballot initiatives and organizing campaigns to go directly to the American people.

The ACLU’s first century was all about ensuring our rights are recognized. Our second-century challenge may be to use all our creativity to preserve liberties we thought we had already won.

Susan N. Herman is the president of the ACLU.

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