American Civil Liberties Union Mourns Passing Of Former Executive Director Jack Pemberton

October 23, 2009 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union mourns the passing of John de J. “Jack” Pemberton. Pemberton served as the national Executive Director of the ACLU from 1962-70, a period marked by the peak of the civil rights struggle and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Under Pemberton’s leadership, the ACLU helped achieve victories in landmark cases such as Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage; Gideon v. Wainwright, which ensured felony defendants have the right to an attorney at trial; and Griswold v. Connecticut, which found that Americans have a constitutional right to privacy. Based on these successes and others, the ACLU doubled its membership under his stewardship.

Pemberton was keenly aware of the role of the ACLU during the turbulent years in which he led the organization. In 1963, he wrote in the official newsletter:

“When parts of our nation are responding to a revolution in race relations with an almost totalitarian repression of ideas, when new reactions to the complexities of an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society are manifesting themselves in more sophisticated forms of intolerance to dissent and unorthodoxy, and when fear-bred responses to constant international tension are threatening liberty everywhere – the need for putting sinew and muscle on the structure of a firm and steadfast guardian of the American ideal is unprecedented.”

Pemberton followed his tenure at the ACLU as a distinguished leader in labor and employment law, serving as Acting General Counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the EEOC Regional Attorney in San Francisco. Pemberton taught law at the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Law from 1973-88, specializing in torts and employment law. He had previously taught at Duke University and New York University. Since 2005, USF has hosted an annual Pemberton Lecture on Workplace Justice in his honor.

A passionate advocate of nonviolence and equality for all, Pemberton was instrumental in establishing the ACLU as a truly national organization through some of the most critical years in American civil rights history. We honor his legacy by continuing to be “a firm and steadfast guardian of the American ideal” – a call that rings just as true today as it did nearly half a century ago.

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