ACLU History: The ACLU and the Bill of Rights

The ACLU has evolved over the years. What began as a small group of idealists taking a stand againt the government in 1920 has grown into the nation’s premier defender of the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. With more than 500,000 members, nearly 200 staff attorneys, thousands of volunteer attorneys, and offices throughout the nation, the ACLU of today 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.

Learn more about the ACLU's history of defending the Bill of Rights below:

Fighting for Racial Justice

While the law provides equal opportunity in theory, it is too often denied in fact. The ACLU is committed to combating racism in all its forms. Its advocacy includes litigation, community organizing and training, legislative initiatives, and public education to address the broad spectrum of issues that disproportionately and negatively impact people of color.

'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'
-- The Declaration of Independence

The 'separate but equal' doctrine that long served as the legal basis for racial segregation resulted in blacks living separate but far from equal lives. The ACLU, from its very first days, fought for racial justice and an end to systemic racism. Today, race remains the critical dividing line in American society.

Learn more about our Racial Justice initiatives: 

Maintaining the Wall: Freedom of – and From – Religion

The ACLU has worked since its inception to ensure that religion remains the business of individuals, families, and religious communities, and that Americans have the right to demonstrate their religious beliefs in public and private.

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Speaking up for Freedom of Expression

The ACLU was born in response to the massive suppression of freedom of speech and the press by the government during World War I, and has played a central role in defending them ever since.

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Defending Liberty in Times of National Crisis

Among the ACLU's proudest moments are those in which it has come to the defense of civil liberties in times of national crisis.

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Dismantling Enclaves of Oppression

During the decade of the mid-1960s’ to the 1970s, the ACLU played an important role in the breaking apart the ‘enclaves of oppression’ that held back students, prisoners, soldiers, and others. Learn more about the ACLU’s commitment to making the promise of the Bill of Rights a reality to all people in America. 


Applying the Bill of Rights to Criminal Justice

From its very beginnings , the ACLU played a pivotal role in creating a national debate on the problem of police misconduct. Learn more about our history of reforming the criminal justice system. 


Protecting Women’s Equality

The early feminist ACLU leaders, were far ahead of their time not only in their striving for women's equality but also in understanding that their struggle for equality shared common cause with other segments of the population who had also been denied their rights.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men AND WOMEN are created equal. 

The ACLU shares the year of its founding, 1920, with another momentous event in civil liberties history: the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. ACLU founders Crystal Eastman and Jane Addams were among the leaders of the women's suffrage movement. Addams, the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, served as Vice President of the National Women's Suffrage Association from 1911 to 1914. Eastman worked in the women's suffrage movement and was co-director, with ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, of the American Union Against Militarism; she also formed the National Woman's Peace Party in 1915.

Learn more about our history of protecting women's equality:

Safeguarding Reproductive Freedom

Since its founding, the ACLU has recognized that personal privacy and reproductive rights are among our most important constitutional liberties. Learn more about our initiatives to safeguard reproductive freedom. 


Forging the Path to Equality for LGBT People

The fight for LGBT rights is a central ACLU concern because the fight for LGBT rights is a core civil liberties issue. It's not about 'special rights'—it's about fundamental rights. It's about fairness and equality for all.

'The Equal Protection Clause neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,'
- Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
 in Lawrence v. Texas

Learn more about our LGBT rights initiatives:

Ensuring Fairness for All Within our Borders

Protection of immigrants' rights was one of the founding principles of the ACLU. Motivated by the notorious Palmer Raids that targeted immigrants for arrest, detention and deportation based on their political beliefs, the ACLU fought to make the First Amendment meaningful to the lives of all people living in the United States. Learn more about the ACLU’s History defending immigrant’s rights.


Guaranteeing the Right to Vote

The right to vote is essential to our democracy. To deny any eligible voter that opportunity is to undermine the fundamental freedoms that define who we are as a nation. Through its Voting Rights Project, the ACLU has continually challenged laws and requirements that diminish free speech and our democratic process.

Learn more about our voting rights innitiatives:

Advocating for Justice at the Supreme Court

'America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.'
- Abraham Lincoln

Among the ACLU's proudest moments are those in which it has come to the defense of civil liberties in times of national crisis. Learn more about ACLU’s History with the supreme court.


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