Special Edition

Historical Analysis of the American Civil Liberties Union


Leigh Ann Wheeler
Associate Professor
Binghamton University

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has played a central role in the development of civil liberties jurisprudence, but it has also shaped popular understandings of civil liberties through its public advocacy, behind-the-scenes pressure on public officials, and, of course, legal work. These two papers—Randy Kamcza’s on the ACLU’s position on the adoption of “In God We Trust” as an official United States motto in the 1950’s and Brandon Scribner’s on the ACLU’s involvement in protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960’s—show us some of the many ways that the ACLU tried to shape law, public policy, and public opinion on some of the most important issues of yesterday and today. Unlike most scholarship on the ACLU, these papers were written by two young researchers who approached their work with no prior experience with the ACLU. Thus, in contrast to the ACLU’s most well-known biographers—Samuel Walker, author of the scholarly, In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (1990) and William Donohue, author of the more polemical book, The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union (1985) to cite just two examples)—Kamcza and Scribner were neither members nor detractors of the organization before they began their work.

However, like other more recent scholarship on the ACLU—most notably, Judy Kutulas’s The American Civil Liberties Union and the Making of Modern Liberalism, 1930-1960 (2006)—Kamcza’s and Scribner’s work shows us an ACLU in constant transition as it accommodated, challenged, and positioned itself relative to shifting political tides. In other words, this recent work portrays the ACLU as an organization made up not only of individual leaders and members whose ideas, values, and strategies frequently conflicted, but also a national association composed of local affiliates whose priorities and experiences sometimes diverged from the national office.

Both papers show us how the ACLU’s commitment to the First Amendment, especially its provisions protecting freedom of expression and mandating separation of church and state, led the organization to oppose Congress’s decision to stamp religious language onto U.S. money and to defend opponents of the Vietnam War. But the ACLU’s positions were never clear-cut, and members debated the intricacies of individual cases and the level and nature of involvement the organization should pursue. Thus, as Kamcza demonstrates, the ACLU protected its own reputation during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s by soft-pedaling its opposition to “In God We Trust.” Similarly, Scribner’s research reveals an ACLU that steadfastly defended conscientious objectors—as its founders had during World War I—but at times drew the line at defending individuals who broke the law by burning draft cards or refusing to register for the draft at all.

Scholars, critics, and advocates have often asked whether the ACLU has been a “political” organization or whether its leaders have been propelled only by principled adherence to civil liberties and the Constitution. Kamcza and Scribner provide a complex answer to that question, showing us an organization made up of individuals who, like the rest of us, disagreed with each other over priorities, understandings of the Constitution, and strategies for defending it—individuals whose disagreements, decisions, and compromises can only be comprehended and appreciated in the context of their times. By doing so, they offer a more nuanced view of a complex organization that has evolved in sometimes unpredictable ways and has had—and continues to have—a profound effect of American law, politics, and culture.

Leigh Ann Wheeler, Associate Professor, Binghamton University
“In God We Trust” and the ACLU, 1955-1959
Randy Kamcza, Bowling Green State University
ACLU Involvement in Anti-war Demonstrations, 1965-1971
Brandon Scribner, Bowling Green State University


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