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The founding of the American Civil Liberties Union, 1920

by: Professor Samuel Walker
School of Criminal Justice
University of Nebraska at Omaha

This is the first part in a series that was introduced earlier.

World War I ended on November 11, 1918, but the repression of civil liberties continued unabated. The most well-known event was the so-called “Palmer Raids,” which actually involved two sets of federal mass arrests of alleged radicals, in November 1919 and early January 1920. The leaders of the NCLB began thinking about transforming the organization into a permanent one devoted to the defense of civil liberties. The key person was Roger Baldwin, who was convicted of violating the Selective Service Act in October 1918 and sent to prison. After his release in the summer of 1919, he made a cross country trip to work as an industrial laborer. Upon his return to New York in late 1919 he began the planning for the new organization, which was established as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in January 1920. 


This undated and unsigned memorandum, Suggestions for Reorganization of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, was probably written by Roger Baldwin (see his initials in the upper right hand corner), probably in late 1919. It represent his thoughts on reorganizing the National Civil Liberties Bureau into a permanent civil liberties organization. Note that in the first paragraph the primary focus is on working people (“the cause we serve is labor”). No name for a permanent organization is suggested at this time. When the ACLU is officially constituted, it is evident that discussions about the agenda for a national organization had expanded to include a broader range of civil liberties issues.


This undated memorandum by Roger Baldwin was probably written in early January 1920 and summarizes the work of the NCLB from October 1917 to January 1920. It was undoubtedly written as part of the discussions to reconstitute the NCLB into a permanent civil liberties organization.


The decision to create the American Civil Liberties Union is recorded in these Minutes of the Conference to Reorganize the National Civil Liberties Bureau, January 12, 1920. Note the concern (Item #3) about including the names of Roger Baldwin and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn because they had been prosecuted and convicted of federal crimes during the war. The objections were rejected, and their names were included. The first action by the new ACLU was to protest the proposed peacetime sedition law being considered by the House of Representatives (Item #7). The 1918 sedition law had expired with the end of the war, but the proposed peacetime law did not pass.


These Minutes of the Temporary Committee, January 13, 1920, the day following the decision to create the ACLU, record the selection of the Executive Committee (Agenda #1). Over the course of the next several decades, the Executive Committee directed the activities of the ACLU through weekly meetings. Agenda Item #8 indicates continued attention to the sedition bill and other bills in Congress.



The Minutes of the National Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union, January 19, 1920, represent the first official meeting of the ACLU. The actual business of the ACLU was conducted by an Executive Committee that met weekly (see Document #4). The National Committee became more of an advisory group that met annually. This initial meeting was devoted to organizational matters such as the budget, renting an office, arranging for a clipping service and so on. As Item #14 indicates, Albert De Silver was handling legislative matters in Congress.


This Letter to Members of the ACLU National Committee, February 6, 1920, is probably the first official communication to ACLU members, and it describes the first work of the ACLU. Item #5 divides those activities into three main areas: legal defense; publicity; seeking amnesty for political prisoners. Item #3 describes the attempts to develop relations with people in other cities to make the ACLU an “effective nation-wide organization.”


The Position of the American Civil Liberties Union on the Issues in the United States Today,is probably the first detailed statement of the ACLU’s civil liberties agenda. The ten items include free speech, free press, the right to strike, and racial equality.

Reel 7/Vol. 69/p. 155L

Maintain Your Rights is an early handbill issued by the ACLU. Through its early years, most of the ACLU’s work involved public education through protests and distributing materials to inform people about violations of civil liberties.


Through this exchange of letters in February 1920, Roger Baldwin recruited Felix Frankfurter, Professor of Law at Harvard University, to serve on the ACLU National Committee and to serve as an advisor on specific issues. In the 1920s Frankfurter was the national expert on injunctions against labor unions and union organizers, which became the principal device for denying working people basic First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and assembly. (See Frankfurter’s 1930 book, with Nathan Greene, The Labor Injunction.) President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frankfurter to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1939. Reel 16, Volume 120 of the ACLU Records contains correspondence with many other prominent individuals and organizations regarding their cooperation with the ACLU.


With this letter, James Weldon Johnson, Field Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), enthusiastically agrees to serve on the ACLU National Committee. This reflected the ACLU’s early commitment to civil rights issues, and a representative of the NAACP served on either the ACLU Executive Committee or National Committee for decades.


Reel 7/Vol. 69/p. 42L


This handbill, The Truth About the Centralia Murder Trial, February 1920, describes one of the most famous examples of the government attack on organized labor during the war and immediate post-war years.


The American Civil Liberties Union (circa 1920) is an early description of the ACLU and its work, designed for public distribution.

Reel7/Vol 69/p.51-54

The title of this 1920 ACLU pamphlet, The Supreme Court vs. Civil Liberties, captures the civil libertarians’ view of the role of the U.S. Supreme Court at this time regarding civil liberties. It states that, with the exception of some search and seizure decisions, the Court “has gone over to the side of repression.” The pamphlet quotes from the dissenting opinions of Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis in several important cases where they supported civil liberties principles.



The Communist Prosecutions and The Persecution of the I.W.W. These two flyers represent the ACLU’s efforts to publicize the government’s attacks on the rights of communists and the radial labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World.


From its founding, the ACLU gave considerable attention to racial justice. In the early 1920s the principal issue involved Ku Klux Klan and mob violence against African Americans, including the lynching of persons being held in jail. This article, “The Ku Klux Klan” by ACLU volunteer attorney Albert De Silver, describes the pattern of racial violence across the country.



This November 1920 list of publications indicates the scope of the ACLU’s concerns in its first year.




The April 1921 letter from Roger Baldwin (top) urges ACLU supporters to write a “short pointed” letter to the president (Warren G. Harding had taken office in March) asking for the release of persons imprisoned during the war for the expression of opinion. In December, President Harding did release a number of these prisoners. The June 1921 statement (bottom) asks people to oppose the Sterling Bill which would make it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the government by force or violence. The Sterling Bill did not pass, but in 1940 Congress passed the Smith Act making such speech a crime.



The Fight For Free Speech (September 1921) is the first annual report of the ACLU. The report describes the principal ACLU activities in its first year, its ten point civil liberties agenda, a list of contributors, and the budget.

For more of the collection that has been digitized you may browse the Finding Aid.

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