National Founding

The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920 by Roger Baldwin.


The ACLU of Southern California was founded in 1923 by Upton Sinclair.

Black and white photo of A.L. Wirin speaking to striking workers, c. 1942
A.L. Wirin speaking to striking workers, c. 1942


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.


Throughout the forties, the ACLU of Southern California went to court again and again to fight government persecution of Japanese Americans. We lost when the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Japanese curfew and evacuation orders, but won when we defeated efforts to strip Japanese Americans of their US citizenship. We got the courts to recognize the right of Japanese Americans to hold civil service jobs, and finally, in 1949, to rule that Japanese Americans who renounced their citizenship at the Tule Lake Relocation Center had done so under duress and were therefore still US citizens.


As the turbulent sixties got underway, the ACLU of Southern California heartily endorsed the across-the-board demand for civil rights. In 1963 we entered the long and difficult battle to desegregate Los Angeles schools. After the Watts riot, we enlisted a vast cadre of volunteer attorneys to ensure that every person arrested — almost 4,000 — was represented by counsel. We did the same after the mass arrests of student demonstrators at California State Northridge and of antiwar demonstrators at the Century Plaza.


In the 1990's, we fought to prevent further cutbacks in the areas of affirmative action and immigrant rights. We sought to stem the tide of censorship of music lyrics, of television, of the Internet. And we continued our longstanding commitment to economic justice, successfully challenging key provisions of the so-called Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

From 2000 to the present

Since 2000, we held the state of California accountable for ensuring equal educational opportunities to all students. The landmark settlement in Williams v. California, announced in 2004, sets standards for access to books, qualified teachers, and safe, clean, and needed facilities, and requires oversight and creates a complaint mechanism to hold districts responsible for meeting these fundamental standards.