The Library Offers Access to the Papers of the American Civil Liberties Union, 1912-1990

Adversary of the political class and defender of the first amendment, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has never flinched from controversy and in an era of polarized politics is as relevant as it’s ever been. Now, the Library offers the Papers of the ACLU, 1912-1990, an archive of some 18,000 documents recording the organization’s activity through most of the 20th century.

Bills, briefs, correspondence, court documents, legal case files, memoranda, minutes, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, telegrams, and reports of cases almost a century old continue to resonate.

Search the name Mitchell Palmer, the U.S. Attorney General during the “Red Scare” of 1919–’20, and click through the volumes in which his name is highlighted. You’ll come to vol. 116 and a Report of the Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice. It’s a defense of the rights of immigrant dissidents and an attack on the U.S. Justice Department’s round-up and deportation, without due process, of immigrants who were assumed to be terrorists in a wave of hysteria that swept the U.S. following the Russian Revolution. One signatory to the document was future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.

Files covering the conscientious objector issue for the first World War alone fill over 37 volumes, and include case files, letters, and diaries containing statements of belief and first-person accounts of camp and prison conditions, the personal experiences of objectors in non-combat roles, newspaper clippings, and reports of persecution.

The ACLU’s beginnings are documented in “The Roger Baldwin Years, 1912–1950,” while activities that touch modern memory are collected in “Years of Expansion, 1950–1990.” You can click “Visual Results” to plot the frequency of search terms on a graph. For instance, typing the name Martin Luther King, Jr. creates a graph that peaks in 1965. Click points on the graph to get to the documents.

For more resources like Papers of the ACLU, 1912–1990, please check the Library guide to new online resources. It’s updated daily!

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