The American Civil Liberties Union, usually known simply as ACLU, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. The year of its birth, 1920, was a year very much like our own. Many Americans were fearful of the future in which so many things were changing. The world had just survived a terrifying flu epidemic, women were demanding the right to vote and to decide their own lives, Russia had just installed a communist government and many Americans felt threatened by the success of revolutionary movements in Europe.
In 1917 the fear of radicals had led to the passage of the Espionage Act. Thousands of people were arrested for expressing radical ideas in speeches and publishing them in magazines. Often the government did not respect the traditional American rights to assemble and to speak freely about their ideas. It was in this climate that a small group of liberals started the ACLU in order to defend the traditional rights of free speech and freedom of assembly guaranteed by the constitution.
Although the ACLU was originally supported mainly by people with liberal political views, in the years since its founding, questions have arisen about where it stands. Liberals cheered in 1925 when the ACLU stood up for the right to teach evolution in schools. Conservatives began to cheer for the ACLU as they supported Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the flag in schools, defended white supremacists and supported the Citizens United decision that allows unlimited political contributions by corporations as well as individuals.
As an organization the ACLU has always been resistant to being categorized. People who strongly support it for one action may turn against it for another. Overall, it has earned the respect and gratitude of both liberals and conservatives, but never a year goes by that someone in one political camp or another doesn’t disagree with a specific action. Sticking by your principles in all situations has always been a difficult stance to maintain.
The fate of the ACLU has to some extent been mirrored in the fate of one of its important founders. Crystal Eastman, one of the most charismatic and well-known activists of the early 20th century, had been famous for years when she joined with others to start the ACLU. Eastman had been an activist fighting to gain women’s right to vote, to own property, and to equality in marriage. She was also a socialist and a dedicated pacifist during the years leading up to World War I. Like the organization she helped found, she refused to settle down to one theme in her life. She supported numerous causes but refused to be defined by them.
During the first two decades of the 20th century more and more women supported the women’s suffrage movement. By the time of the 1916 election, both Democrats and Republicans were vying for the support of suffrage leaders. Many of these leaders, including Eastman, thought that the time for a women’s suffrage amendment was close at hand. Most of the same leaders were also eager to persuade the government not to enter the war which had started in Europe in 1914. Most of the suffrage leaders, decided that getting the vote for women was more important than trying to avoid going to war.
Crystal Eastman stood almost alone in deciding that her commitment to peace was more important at that time than her fight to get votes for women. She never stepped back from her suffrage work, but it became less important in her life. Perhaps that is one reason why she is less often remembered than some of the other suffragists. Many of the traditional suffragists who are honored for achieving votes for women had to sacrifice some of their other values to support that over-riding cause.
Wouldn’t it be nice if individuals like Crystal Eastman or groups like the ACLU could decide what values they upheld and move ahead toward them on a straight path? Instead, fighting for any ideal inevitably raises questions.
- When does defending freedom of speech turn into support for hate speech?
- When does a desire to maintain peace mean that we ignore death and suffering in foreign lands?
- When does a person’s right to privacy justify ignoring possible security threats being planned by online groups?
These are the questions that keep idealists lying awake at night. And the truth is those questions will probably never be completely answered. But they are questions we should keep thinking about. Two books I’ve read recently offer a lot of food for thought. One is a new biography, Crystal Eastman: A Revolutionary Life by Amy Aronson and the other is the recent Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. Both of them raise many questions about how we set priorities in our personal and political lives. No answers—just questions. In the end we all have to find our own answers.