The ACLU’s Long Battle for Racial Justice

By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU-PA

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(Photo: Ben Bowens)

The ACLU’s First Amendment bona fides have been well established over our 100-year history, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania has had its own pioneering history of defending and expanding free speech and religious liberty. It was an ACLU-PA case that ended the practice of mandatory Bible readings in public schools. The ACLU-PA also squashed the burgeoning “intelligent design” movement, i.e. creationism warmed over. And here in the commonwealth, we have a long litany of defense of speech rights, from anti-torture demonstrators protesting George W. Bush to animal rights activists picketing at the circus, to advocates and journalists who want to advertise on public transit, to students who just wanted to raise awareness about breast cancer.

Back in the mid-1990s, when I announced that I had accepted a job with the national ACLU and was moving from North Carolina to New York City, a few good friends jokingly said: “Don’t get up there and start defending the Ku Klux Klan!” Their reaction is not unique. People are quite familiar with the ACLU’s history of taking controversial First Amendment cases.

Perhaps less well known is that, since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has been engaged in the fight for civil rights and racial equality. In 1931, it took up the case of the Scottsboro Boys — nine African-American teenagers wrongly accused of raping two white women. That same year, the ACLU published “Black Justice,” a comprehensive survey outlining institutionalized racism in America. In 1942, Roger Baldwin, a founder of the ACLU, established the national Committee Against Racial Discrimination.

Over the course of the next few decades, the ACLU became involved in some of the most important racial justices cases ever to reach the Supreme Court, including cases that invalidated white-only primary elections (1944); outlawed racially restrictive covenants requiring white homeowners to sell their homes to other whites (1947); established the “one person, one vote” rule (1964); found it unconstitutional to exclude women and African-Americans from juries (1966, 1967); and declared illegal racial segregation in state prisons and jails (1968).

The ACLU also was involved in Brown v. Board Education, the 1954 case that famously struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine, and Loving v. Virginia, which ended the ban on interracial marriage in 1967.

In 1964, the ACLU established a Southern Regional Office, which launched a number of lawsuits challenging racial discrimination and institutionalized segregation in the South. The Southern Regional Office eventually became the ACLU Voting Rights Project, which played an integral role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since then, the ACLU has been involved in every effort to reauthorize and protect the gains resulting from the Voting Rights Act, an effort that is more needed than ever, after the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the VRA several years ago.

Roger Baldwin was right when he said, “No victory ever stays won.”

More recently, the ACLU has led the fight against racial profiling, to preserve affirmative action, and to end the school-to-prison pipeline. In Pennsylvania, we sued the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police for its racially discriminatory hiring practices. To this day — nine years into our lawsuit — we continue to enforce a consent decree with the city of Philadelphia and its police department for targeting African-Americans and Latinos with its stop-and-frisk practices.

A current priority of the ACLU is criminal legal reform, what we call smart justice. The criminal legal system disproportionately targets and imprisons African-Americans. One in every nine Black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated, and one in three Black men will spend some part of his life in prison. Today, there are more African-Americans under correctional control (3.5 million) than were enslaved (3.2 million) in 1850. Mass incarceration, also known as the New Jim Crow, is largely the result of the War on Drugs and the growth of the prison industrial complex. It’s had a devastating impact on the lives of those convicted of crime, their families and communities.

Every year, during Black History Month, I am especially proud of the recognition of African-Americans, both famous and nameless, who dedicated or gave their lives to ensure that America live up to its founding ideals. I am also proud to be a part of an organization that continues to be engaged in the ongoing struggle for racial equality.

In America, Black history is American history, and the ACLU is an important part of that history.

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