The U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights trumpet our aspirations for the kind of society that we want to be. But for much of our history, our nation failed to fulfill the promise of liberty.
In the early years of the 20th century, civil liberties were in a sorry state. Racial segregation was legal and pervaded all aspects of American society, with lynchings and other racist violence against African Americans occurring frequently. Sex discrimination was firmly institutionalized, denying women the right to vote and prompting their arrest for discussing birth control in public. Employers fired workers for advocating labor unions. The police conducted warrantless searches of criminal suspects and their homes with impunity. The government routinely deported aliens because of their political views.
This climate of repression became especially harsh during the years of World War I, when more than 1,900 legal actions were brought against Americans for their public speeches, newspaper articles, pamphlets or books. American citizens languished in jail for holding antiwar views, including a minister sentenced to 15 years for saying that the war was "unChristian." In 1919 and 1920, U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer carried out mass arrests and deportations of thousands of Americans -- so-called radicals -- without warrants or regard for constitutional rights. Those arrested were brutally treated and held in horrible conditions.
In 1920, a small group of visionaries came together to discuss how to make civil liberties a reality. Led by Roger Baldwin, a social worker and labor activist, the group included Crystal Eastman, Albert DeSilver, Jane Addams, Felix Frankfurter, Helen Keller and Arthur Garfield Hayes. They formed the ACLU and dedicated themselves to holding the government to the Bill of Rights’ promises.
In its first year, the ACLU fought the campaign of harassment and deportation ordered by Attorney General Palmer. The ACLU championed such Palmer targets as politically radical immigrants and supported the right of Industrial Workers of the World members and other trade unionists to hold meetings and organize. The ACLU also secured the release of hundreds of activists imprisoned for their anti-war views and activities.