ACLU Commemorates Melvin L. Wulf, Former Legal Director

July 12, 2023 5:00 pm

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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union celebrates the life and legacy of Melvin L. Wulf, former ACLU legal director, following his death July 8 at age 95.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, highlights Wulf’s contributions to civil liberties and rights, the ACLU, and the legal world:

“Few individuals have had such a profound impact on the ACLU and civil liberties as Mel Wulf. He started at a time when the ACLU was still building out its litigation program, but that didn’t deter him from taking on some of the toughest fights of his time, never standing down in the face of government abuse of our rights and liberties.

“Throughout his tenure, Mel played a key role in the ACLU’s transformation into a leading legal organization opposing government censorship of the Pentagon Papers, representing objectors to the Vietnam War, and establishing new institutions to protect the civil rights of Black Americans following crucial legislative wins in the ‘60s.

“We remember Mel Wulf for his dedication to civil rights and civil liberties, and will continue to honor his legacy by upholding the values for which he spent his lifetime fighting.”

Melvin L. Wulf was the legal director of the ACLU from 1962-1977, a pivotal time for the United States during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. He argued 10 cases before the Supreme Court, and during his tenure as legal director, the ACLU filed amicus briefs or represented clients in landmark Supreme Court cases, including Griswold v. Connecticut, Miranda v. Arizona, Tinker v. Des Moines, Gideon v. Wainwright, and Loving v. Virginia.

A former legal officer in the Navy, Wulf first joined the ACLU in 1958 working with then-ACLU legal director Rowland Watts at a time when the ACLU national office had only a handful of attorneys on staff. During his 15-year tenure as legal director, Wulf oversaw a widespread expansion of the ACLU’s legal work. Before becoming legal director, the ACLU’s legal work focused on drafting and submitting amicus briefs, primarily before the Supreme Court; rarely did the organization represent clients. Wulf pushed the ACLU to represent people whose civil liberties were violated.

In the 1960s, Wulf expanded the ACLU’s reach during the Civil Rights Movement, hiring Chuck Morgan to open the ACLU Southern Regional Office in Atlanta, one of the first affiliates in the South. During this time, the Southern Regional Office worked to desegregate the criminal justice system and expand representation for Black communities in the South. Wulf also pushed the organization to oppose the war in Vietnam, representing conscientious objectors, draft card burners, and others engaged in active resistance to the war.

In the 1970s, following the leak of the Pentagon Papers, Wulf led the ACLU’s response to the government’s effort to block their publication, ultimately culminating in the Supreme Court case, U.S. v. New York Times. He also oversaw the expansion of the ACLU’s women’s rights and reproductive justice work, with the establishment of the Women’s Rights Project, led by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Brenda Feigen, and the Reproductive Freedom Project.

“Back in 1967, when I first stepped into the ACLU, many controversial issues of great consequence, both internal and external, turbulently swirled everywhere, and Mel was on the right side of all of them. I remember him as both irreverent and serious, and possessed of values critical to the ACLU’s mission,” said Ira Glasser, former ACLU executive director.

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