American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

In 1919 Woodrow Wilson appointed A. Mitchell Palmeras his attorney general. Palmer had previously been associated with the progressive wing of the party and had supported women's suffrage and trade union rights. However, once in power, Palmer's views on civil rights changed dramatically.

Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. His view was reinforced by the discovery of thirty-eight bombs sent to leading politicians and the Italian anarchist who blew himself up outside Palmer's Washington home. Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.

A. Mitchell Palmer claimed that Communist agents from Russia were planning to overthrow the American government. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested in what became known as the Palmer Raids. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but Emma Goldman and 247 other people, were deported to Russia.

In January, 1920, another 6,000 were arrested and held without trial. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects, many of them members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), continued to be held without trial. When Palmer announced that the communist revolution was likely to take place on 1st May, mass panic took place. In New York, five elected Socialists were expelled from the legislature.

A group of people appalled by the way people were being persecuted for their political beliefs decided in 1920 to establish the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Early members included Roger Baldwin, Norman Thomas, Jane Addams, John Haynes Holmes, Freda Kirchwey, Chrystal Eastman, Florence Kelley,Lillian Wald, Felix Frankfurter, Oswald Garrison Villard, Paul Kellogg, Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, Charles Beard, Abraham Muste, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Upton Sinclair.

The ACTU's main concern was to defend the civil rights that were guaranteed in state and federal constitutions. This included:

(1) First Amendment rights: These include freedom of speech, association and assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, including the strict separation between church and state.

(2) Equal protection of the law: The right to equal treatment regardless of race, sex, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age, physical handicap, or other such classification. These rights apply to the voting booth, the classroom, the workplace and the courts.

(3) Due process of law: The right to be treated fairly when facing criminal charges or other serious accusations that can result in such penalties as loss of employment, exclusion from school, denial of housing, or cut-off of benefits.

(4) The right of privacy and autonomy which cannot be penetrated by the government or by other institutions, like employers, with substantial influence over the individual's rights.

Roger Baldwin was appointed as the first director of the ACLU and over the next thirty five years was involved in the campaign against, the Espionage Act, the Tennessee Anti-Evolution Law, lynching, Jim Crow, McCarthyism and Racial Segregation.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Jane Addams, speech in Chicago (28th November, 1919)

Hundreds of poor laboring men and women are being thrown into jails and police stations because of their political beliefs. In fact, an attempt is being made to deport an entire political party.

These men and women, who in some respects are more American in ideals than the agents of the government who are tracking them down, are thrust into cells so crowded they cannot lie down.

And what is it these radicals seek? It is the right of free speech and free thought; nothing more than is guaranteed to them under the Constitution of the United States, but repudiated because of the war.

It is a dangerous situation we face at the present time, with the rule of the few overcoming the voice of the many. It is doubly dangerous because we are trying to suppress something upon which our very country was founded - liberty.

The cure for the spirit of unrest in this country is conciliation and education - not hysteria. Free speech is the greatest safety valve of our United States. Let us give these people a chance to explain their beliefs and desires. Let us end this suppression and spirit of intolerance which is making of America another autocracy.