Throughout the 1988 Presidential campaign, George Bush drew cheers from supporters by attacking Michael Dukakis's membership in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization that he charged was out of the "mainstream" of American life. Indeed, throughout its history, the organization has championed some decidedly unpopular causes, including free speech rights for racist groups and due process for even the most vicious criminals.
But as Samuel Walker argues in his provocative new book--the first comprehensive history of the ACLU--the organization has played a leading role in shaping principles of individual freedom that are now a cornerstone of American law and the way all of us conceive of personal liberty. It has been involved in most of the Supreme Court's landmark cases expanding individual rights, and today argues more cases before the Court than anyone but the federal government. In fact, asAmerican Liberties makes clear, the organization has played a central role in creating that mythical American "mainstream" that its opponents so often invoke.
In fascinating detail, Walker recounts the ACLU's stormy history since its founding in 1920 to fight for free speech. He explores its involvement in some of the most famous causes in American history, including the Scopes "Monkey Trial," the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Cold War anti-Communist witch hunts, and the civil rights movement. And he examines its most famous personalities, such as its puritan and autocratic founder Roger Baldwin; Felix Frankfurter, a long-time member who later voted against many ACLU cases while a Supreme Court justice; and Morris Ernst, who won the landmark case involving James Joyce'sUlysses and led the ACLU to take up the cause of free expression for sexually-frank publications.
Walker deals candidly with the ACLU's less praiseworthy episodes--such as the expulsion of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from the Board during the ACLU's anti-Communist phase, and he dissects the organization's constant struggle within itself to define the proper scope of civil liberties, revealing facts that will surprise even members of the ACLU.
As Walker's engrossing story demonstrates, the history of the ACLU embodies some of the most important changes in American society in the twentieth century. The principles for which the organization has fought--such as free speech, fair play, equality, and privacy--are now accepted and cherished by Americans from all walks of life.show more