ACLU History: An Early Cry for Justice

Document Date: September 1, 2010

The politically tumultuous years leading up to World War I saw many incidents of racial violence, including widespread attacks on black communities by gangs of whites. Much of the violence was incited by anti-union employers, who recruited blacks as cheap labor in response to white workers’ efforts to unionize. The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression aggravated the situation, further pitting poor whites against poor blacks. The worst riots of the period took place in East St. Louis in 1917, during which 39 blacks were killed by white rioters, and more than 300 black houses in a segregated neighborhood were burned to the ground. ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, a native of St. Louis, and other future leaders of the ACLU called on President Woodrow Wilson to speak out against racist mob violence. Shamefully, Wilson refused to act at a time when his leadership mattered, although one year later he did issue a brief statement of condemnation.

Throughout the 1920s, the ACLU was virtually the only predominantly white organization to champion racial justice and denounce resurgent Ku Klux Klan violence. Both the ACLU and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pressed the government to intervene against the Klan where local authorities did not act. But the White House and the Justice Department largely did nothing, while those who stood up to the Klan ran the risk of whippings, brandings and lynchings. Through its early efforts to combat racism, the ACLU forged a close bond with the NAACP which continues to this day.

In 1931, the ACLU published Black Justice, a comprehensive report on institutionalized racism and one of the first reports on the subject by a mostly white organization. A key finding of this landmark report was that in the ten Deep South states, ‘the Negro may not vote. The Negro may not marry according to his choice. The Negro must accept separate accommodations in public schools and on public conveyances.’

At the same time that it advocated against racial injustice, however, the ACLU continued to champion the free speech rights of organizations like the Klan to march and express their abhorrent views, a tradition that would sometimes put it at odds with important allies like the NAACP.


The Ossian Sweet Case: An early example of NAACP and ACLU collaboration


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