Last Updated 03 Mar 2020

American Civil Liberties Union

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The American Civil Liberties Union more commonly known as the ACLU is one of the most prominent advocacy groups in contemporary American society. The ACLU is a non-profit and non-partisan organization based in New York.

ACLU’s primary advocacy has always been the protection of the constitutional rights of US Citizens. Moreover, it is part of the ACLU’s mission to extend those rights to demographics which have been traditionally denied the same constitutional rights as the average American citizen.

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These groups include Native Americans, the poor, transsexual and transgender people, and prisoners to name a few. The major activities of the ACLU in advancing its advocacy include  community education efforts, lobbying for desired legislation as well as supporting litigation which seeks to establish protection for civil rights (“About Us”).


The ACLU can trace its roots to World War I. A forerunner of the ACLU, the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), was established in 1914 to oppose American entry into the war. With the eventual entry of America into World War I, Crystal Eastman, the executive secretary of the AUAM together with Roger Baldwin, a social worker, founded a Bureau of Conscientious Objectors.

The Bureau worked to oppose the draft as well as to advise conscientious objectors. In 1917, the AUAM created a new independent organization – the National Civil Liberties Bureau. Eastman and Baldwin then shifted their focus on the NCLB after which the AUAM folded soon after (“The Roger Baldwin Years, 1917-1950: Finding Aid”).

Baldwin continued his opposition to the draft, himself deliberately violating the Selective Service Act which resulted in his imprisonment in 1918. Upon release from prison, Baldwin helped establish the ACLU in January 19, 1920.

Unlike the NCLB, the ACLU was established as a permanent organization which shall live on even after the war. At the time of the ACLU’s founding, the US Supreme Court has failed to uphold even a single free speech claim. The infant ACLU quickly got itself involved in noteworthy cases such as Sacco & Vanzetti, the Scopes Trial and the Scottsboro boys (Cottrell).

The early ACLU concentrated on fighting the causes of the labor movement, believing that advancing labor causes would result in their desired changes in society. During the 1920s most of ACLU funding came from Albert Desilver, another founding member of the ACLU and the Garland Fund.

Media mileage during the Tennessee Scopes Trial helped the ACLU gain reputation and raise funds for its efforts (“The Roger Baldwin Years, 1917-1950: Finding Aid”).

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