Ripston led the ACLU of Southern California for nearly 40 years
LOS ANGELES — Ramona Ripston, who built the ACLU of Southern California into a civil liberties, civil rights, and activism powerhouse over a span of four decades, has died. She was 91.
Ripston had been in failing health for several years. She served as executive director of the ACLU SoCal from 1972 to 2011, except for a period of 18 months beginning in 1986, when she was a vice president in charge of the western region for the advocacy organization People for the American Way.
Ripston was an impassioned, outspoken, ever-persistent champion of civil rights and civil liberties, taking on issues including racial discrimination, police practices, the rights of immigrants, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and education equity. With unflagging energy, she enlisted world-famous celebrities, grassroots organizers, and ordinary citizens alike to fight for her causes.
“She had two things that are all too precious in this world — a vision of a better future and the courage to pursue it,” said Hector Villagra, the current executive director of the ACLU SoCal. “There are few people who provide such a shining example of living out their beliefs.”
With steely conviction mixed with charm, she was even able to forge alliances with figures hardly known for progressive views, such as former Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis, the first LAPD chief ever to attend an ACLU SoCal event.
Seen regularly throughout the years on the front lines of protests as well as on television, Ripston didn’t mind taking on unpopular causes when she believed in them, and she didn’t mind bucking up against other progressive leaders she felt were too cautious.
“Ramona was a fierce and unrelenting opponent of injustice and oppression, who often drew the ire of those who stood in the way of reform,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the national ACLU. “But no one could deny her unflinching commitment to the protection of civil liberties and the improvement of people’s lives. She leaves behind a powerful legacy of selflessness that will continue to inspire advocates both inside and outside the ACLU.”
- Police Spying on Community Activists: With coalition partners, the ACLU SoCal succeeded in 1984 in shutting down the LAPD’s long-standing Public Disorder Intelligence Division (PDID) that regularly disregarded constitutional rights when spying on community activists and liberals.
- Voting Rights: The ACLU SoCal teamed with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1981 to sue Los Angeles County for drawing voting districts that denied Latinos fair representation. The result was a a majority Latino supervisorial district that Gloria Molina represented for 23 years.
- Reproductive Justice: The ACLU SoCal fought numerous attempts to curb abortion rights and helped make California the first state to strike down a statute restricting funding for doctor-advised abortions.
- Driving While Black or Brown: In 1999, the ACLU SoCal launched a public service campaign to bring awareness to race-based stops by police.
- LGBTQ Rights: The ACLU SoCal was the first ACLU affiliate to craft a policy on gay and lesbian rights, and the first organization in the U.S. to hire an attorney to work full-time on those issues.
Ripston was also a pioneer in proclaiming economic justice as a primary issue for the ACLU SoCal. She launched landmark litigation that resulted in a nearly $1-billion commitment from the state of California to upgrade rundown schools in poor and minority communities.
She also was a powerful voice for people experiencing homelessness, with ACLU SoCal attorneys winning a controversial 2006 legal decision to prevent police from arresting people for sleeping on sidewalks when they had no other place to go. She considered poverty an overlooked threat to fundamental freedoms. “If you don’t have food on the table or a bed to sleep in,” Ripston said, “the promises we make to people about equity and justice are just illusions.”
Ramona Ann Ripston was born on Feb. 18, 1927, in Queens, New York to a Roman Catholic father and Orthodox Jewish mother. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science from Hunter College in 1948, she found it tough to find a job in her field. She worked as a model, then a buyer for a department store.
Ripston married five times. Her spouses included civil liberties attorney Hank di Suvero and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stanley R. Malone Jr. She was proud to defy tradition by never taking her husbands’ names. “I always felt strongly about that,” she said. “Of course, I didn’t know I’d be married so many times, so that turned out to be a good thing.”
Frustrated at her scant chances to work in her area of study, she began volunteering at the New York Civil Liberties Union and in 1965 joined the staff full time. Seven years later, she was offered the Los Angeles post.
At the time, the ACLU SoCal had a crew of six working in offices above a coffee shop and wig store. Today, more than 90 staff members operate out of four locations including the downtown Los Angeles headquarters. It’s called the Ramona Ripston Center for Civil Liberties and Civil Rights.
Her final marriage, in 1991, was to Stephen Reinhardt, a famed member of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Both were passionate about civil liberties. “Before we bought a treadmill, we would walk on the beach every morning, holding hands and arguing,” she told California Lawyer magazine in 2002. Reinhardt died in March 2018.
Ripston’s survivors include daughter Laura Ripston and son William Caplin. Her son Mark Caplin died in 1994.