Throughout the twenties and thirties, the ACLU of Southern California continued to defend the right of workers to strike — indeed to organize at all, since California's Criminal Syndicalism Act in effect criminalized union membership. It was also widely used to crack down on the political speech of socialists, communists, and civil rights advocates.
In 1931, we hired our first — and the nation's first — civil rights attorney, Al Wirin, who carried our fight to protect political speech into the courts. In 1934, Wirin drove out to the Imperial Valley armed with injunctions to prevent growers and businessmen from breaking up the meetings of Mexican farm workers. Called away from his dinner in a Brawley hotel by a mysterious page, he was seized by a vigilante mob and with the aid of police, taken out into the desert, savagely beaten, threatened with murder, robbed of everything he was carrying and his shoes, and then turned loose.
Undeterred, he responded by suing the governor, the head of the highway patrol, the captain of the Red Squad of the LAPD, the police chief of Brawley, and 25 John Doe vigilantes. At a time when union organizers hid by day to be free to organize at night, and police routinely produced confessions with rolled telephone books that left no bruises, the ACLU of Southern California continued to fight the Criminal Syndicalism Act. It took almost fifty years to have it declared unconstitutional, but we persisted and we finally prevailed in 1971.