Leigh Ann Wheeler, Associate Professor, Binghamton University
Full article: http://www.kon.org/urc/aclu/intro.html
Introduction: 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.
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