The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded on this date in 1920 by a committee that included Felix Frankfurter, who would become a Supreme Court justice nineteen years later, and Morris Ernst, who served as the organization’s general counsel for thirty years (1929-59). Ernst had, three years earlier, co-founded the National Civil Liberties Bureau, dedicated to assisting conscientious objectors to World War I and to defending free speech during and after the war. Ernst was nevertheless a strong supporter of J. Edgar Hoover, who came to prominence during the Palmer Raids and Red Scare of 1919, and led the ACLU to bar communists from membership in 1940. Today, the ACLU has more than 500,000 dues-paying members, offices in all fifty U.S. states, and a budget exceeding $100 million. The ACLU’s key issues include opposition to the death penalty, support for reproductive rights, including birth control and abortion, as established by the Supreme Court; fighting discrimination against women and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; protecting incarcerated people from torture, including lengthy solitary confinement; and maintaining the wall between church and state.
“[F]ear of ideas is probably the greatest dike holding back human knowledge and happiness.”–Morris Ernst