In the years following World War I, Americans feared communist infiltration of our country following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. As we continue to see today, when fear outweighs rational debate, civil liberties pay the price.
In November 1919 and January 1920, in what became known as the “Palmer Raids,” Attorney General Mitchell Palmer began rounding up and deporting so-called radicals. Thousands of people were arrested without warrants and without regard to constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure. Against the backdrop of the Palmer Raids, the American Civil Liberties Union was formed to protect the civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights. January 19, 1920 is recognized as the official date of its founding.
Arthur Garfield Hayes, who lived at 24 East 10th Street, was an American lawyer and champion of civil liberties issues. Garfield Hayes is best known as a co-founder and general counsel of the ACLU.
At the helm of the ACLU, Garfield Hayes participated in landmark cases including the Scopes Monkey trial (questioning a teacher’s right to teach evolution in the classroom), the defense of due process for Sacco and Vanzetti, and the Scottsboro trials– a series of trials involving nine young Black men in Alabama, who were accused of raping two white women in 1931. This trial was appealed many times, one of the accusers eventually recanted her claims, and the ordeal even forced the stipulation that juries cannot be entirely comprised of white jurors.
Hays’ legal career continued long after World War II until his death in late 1954. It even included writing and filing the ACLU’s brief in support of the plaintiffs in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, which was decided just months before he died and ultimately led to the end of legal segregation in the United States.
Other founders of the ACLU included Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman (also a Villager), Walter Nelles, Morris Ernst, Albert DeSilver, Jane Addams, Felix Frankfurter, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Their stated mission was “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
The ACLU played a critical role in the life and work of another famous Villager and his art.
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was written in the summer of 1955. After the first public reading of the poem, publisher and fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore published Howl in 1956. By 1957, Allen Ginsberg’s groundbreaking poem was enjoying such popular acclaim that the publisher found it necessary to have a second printing. The books were printed in London, and upon arrival in the U.S., Customs agents seized the books and deemed them “obscene materials.” The United States pressed charges and claimed that the content of the poem was too risqué for the citizens of the United States. Police subsequently arrested Lawrence Ferlinghetti and bookseller Shigeyoshi Murao, who, along with Howl itself, stood trial for obscenity. At the trial, nine literary experts testified on the poem’s behalf. The American Civil Liberties Union argued the case on First Amendment grounds. After a long trial (covered in a Life Magazine picture story) in which poets, critics, and academics testified to the redeeming social value of Howl, California State Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn was persuaded that the poem was of “redeeming social importance” and City Lights was exonerated. The decision that was handed down in the Howl obscenity trial led to the American publication of the previously censored Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. The trials publicity brought the Beat Movement into the national spotlight and inspired many would-be poets.
The ACLU is a battle-worn defender of the rights of citizens enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. With more than 1.5 million members, nearly 300 staff attorneys, thousands of volunteer attorneys, and offices throughout the nation, the ACLU continues to fight government abuse and to vigorously defend individual freedoms including speech and religion, a woman’s right to choose, the right to due process, citizens’ rights to privacy and much more. The ACLU stands up for these rights even when the cause is unpopular. The ACLU has become so ingrained in American society that it is hard to imagine an America without it.