The Real History of the ACLU

“I am for socialism, disarmament and ultimately for abolishing the state itself as an instrument of violence and compulsion. I seek the social ownership of property, the abolition of the propertied class and sole control by those who produce wealth. Communism is, of course, the goal.” ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, 1935 

 The left wing bias prevalent on college history faculties colors just about everything that shows up in mainstream history books. Textbook portrayals of Joseph McCarthy, for example, are very negative because liberals, including the great majority of university history professors, view McCarthy with hostility. The beneficiaries of this bias are persons and groups whom liberals view with favor.

One such group is the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU’s leaders and admirers are always claiming that the group exists to protect the individual rights of all Americans, without any political bias; but the claim is disingenuous. In reality the agenda of the ACLU is very similar to that of any other left wing group.

The group fights tooth and nail for abortion rights, for example, despite the lack of any clearly stated right to abortion in the Constitution, because the Democratic Party and the left in general are pro-abortion. They refuse to support gun rights, even though a citizen’s right to keep and bear arms is clearly spelled out in the Second Amendment, because Democrats and liberals opposed gun rights.

Defending Socialists and Inventing New Rights

In his widely used textbook Give Me Liberty, Columbia  Professor Eric Foner introduces the ACLU this way:

The arrest of antiwar dissenters under the Espionage and Sedition acts inspired the formation in 1917 of the Civil Liberties Bureau, which in 1920 became the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). For the rest of the century, the ACLU would take part in most of the landmark cases that helped bring about a “rights revolution.” Its efforts helped give meaning to traditional civil liberties like freedom of speech and invented new ones, like the right to privacy.

What Dr. Foner doesn’t say is that ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, and charter members like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, were ardent left wingers who identified with the Communist movement from the start of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

Professor Foner does, however, display admirable candor when he credits the ACLU with helping to “invent new rights, like the right to privacy.” He’s referring to the 1965 US Supreme Court decision in Griswold v Connecticut, in which the Court overturned a stupid, but perfectly constitutional, Connecticut law against contraception. Eight years later this chimerical “right to privacy” would form the basis of the Court’s Roe v Wade decision, overturning state laws against abortion.

Most liberals claim that the “right to privacy” cited in the Griswold decision was based in the Constitution, despite the absence of any language to that effect in the actual document. Professor Foner is much more accurate and honest when he credits the ACLU with urging to court to “invent” such a right.

Radical Origins

Roger Baldwin was a leftist radical long before he founded his famous “civil rights” union. Biographer Robert C. Cottrell admiringly describes him as “one of the nation’s leading figures in left-of-center circles.” Baldwin was a friend and admirer of Anarchist leader Emma Goldman, who once conspired with self-described “Communist Anarchist”  Alexander Berkman to murder a businessman who was hiring strikebreakers to replace union workers.

Other charter members of the ACLU included Socialist Crystal Eastman and Communists Elizabeth  Gurley Flynn; and William Z. Foster, who would later serve as General Secretary of the Communist Party USA.

The ACLU and Atheism

One of the ACLU’s proudest moments, according to many history texts, is its success in 1925 in persuading a Tennessee schoolteacher named John Scopes to violate a state law against teaching Darwinian evolution. The freshman textbooks America’s Promise and Nation of Nations, along with Dr. Foner’s book Give Me Liberty, all cite the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” as a triumph of modern science over primitive superstition.

Atheism was the prevailing religious belief among the ACLU’s leadership then as now, and is widely popular among history faculties today, so it’s not surprising that history profs would give the Scopes trial prominence in their textbooks.

Labor vs Management

Organized labor is another darling of both history professors and the ACLU. In Give Me Liberty Professor Foner tells us how the ACLU began defending the proletarian victims of property-owning capitalists in the 1930’s. “By 1934,” said Foner, the ACLU had “concluded that the ‘masters of property’ posed as great a danger to freedom of speech and assembly as political authorities.”

Stalin Loses Roger Baldwin

In 1939 Roger Baldwin suddenly renounced Communism and kicked everyone with Stalinist sympathies, including charter member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, out of the organization.

It wasn’t Josef Stalin’s genocide in the Ukraine that alienated Baldwin; that had happened back in 1932 and ’33, and Baldwin had managed not to notice. The thing that turned Roger Baldwin against Stalinist Russia was the ironically named “non-aggression pact” that Stalin and Adolf Hitler signed, in which they agreed to stay out of each other’s way while conquering and enslaving different parts of Europe. Flynn and Foster were willing to support Hitler if it helped Stalin; Baldwin was not.

It’s hard to find a negative word about the ACLU in modern history books, but Baldwin’s 1939 rejection of Communism did rub historian Howard Zinn the wrong way. In his widely used textbook A People’s History of the United States, Professor Zinn (himself an undercover Communist, according to his FBI file) accuses the ACLU of a lack of resolve:

Even the American Civil Liberties Union, set up specifically to defend the liberties of Communists and all other political groups, began to wilt in the cold war atmosphere. It had already started in this direction back in 1940 when it expelled one of its charter members, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, because she was a member of the Communist party.1 

It’s worth noting that the ACLU was not the only organization expelling Communists during that period. The Hitler-Stalin pact, which was in effect from August of 1939 to June of 1941, caused a backlash against Communism all around the US.

In 1940 the federal government passed the Smith Act, which made it a crime to “teach, advocate, or encourage” the violent overthrow of the US government. State legislatures in California, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas all established committees to screen public employees for loyalty to the United States. Twenty one states quickly passed laws requiring public school teachers to sign loyalty oaths. 

The New York anti-subversion law forced colleges and universities around the state to fire some sixty faculty members with Communist or Fascist sympathies, fully two thirds of them from one campus. City College of New York was such a hotbed of Communism in those days that the new state law forced CUNY to dismiss forty faculty members, one of whom was Jack Foner, the father of the modern day history professor who wrote Give Me Liberty.

The younger Professor Foner addresses the 1940 New York law in his textbook, portraying it as an immoral product of anti-Communist “hysteria,” but he fails to mention that his father was one of the fired Communist sympathizers.

The ACLU Today

On its homepage, the modern day ACLU boasts of “90 YEARS OF PROTECTING YOUR LIBERTY,”  but the group’s consistently leftist bent results in some interesting definitions of the term “liberty.”

They bring lawsuits to force state governments to give bigger welfare checks to the prolific poor. They call on the federal government  to regulate the compensation businesses pay their employees.

When malcontent feminists tried to force a privately owned country club to change its admission policies through public protests, media campaigns, and punitive lawsuits targeted at the club’s members, a truly non-partisan civil rights group would have defended the club’s right of association. The ACLU apparently values political correctness over Constitutional rights; they joined the feminists in trying to pressure the club to change its policies.

It is easy to understand why college professors and other leftists would admire the ACLU. It stands for all the same values that liberals hold dear.

Al Fuller

1 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (2003 edition), p. 436

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