Cover image for In defense of American liberties : a history of the ACLU
In defense of American liberties : a history of the ACLU
Walker, Samuel, 1942-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Oxford University Press, 1990.
Physical Description:
xiii, 479 pages, 14 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


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Material Type
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JC599.U5 W28 1990 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Throughout the 1988 Presidential campaign, George Bush drew cheers from supporters by attacking Michael Dukakis's membership in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization that he charged was out of the "mainstream" of American life. Indeed, throughout its history, the organization has championed some decidedly unpopular causes, including free speech rights for racist groups and due process for even the most vicious criminals.
But as Samuel Walker argues in his provocative new book--the first comprehensive history of the ACLU--the organization has played a leading role in shaping principles of individual freedom that are now a cornerstone of American law and the way all of us conceive of personal liberty. It has been involved in most of the Supreme Court's landmark cases expanding individual rights, and today argues more cases before the Court than anyone but the federal government. In fact, as American Liberties makes clear, the organization has played a central role in creating that mythical American "mainstream" that its opponents so often invoke.
In fascinating detail, Walker recounts the ACLU's stormy history since its founding in 1920 to fight for free speech. He explores its involvement in some of the most famous causes in American history, including the Scopes "Monkey Trial," the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Cold War anti-Communist witch hunts, and the civil rights movement. And he examines its most famous personalities, such as its puritan and autocratic founder Roger Baldwin; Felix Frankfurter, a long-time member who later voted against many ACLU cases while a Supreme Court justice; and Morris Ernst, who won the landmark case involving James Joyce's Ulysses and led the ACLU to take up the cause of free expression for sexually-frank publications.
Walker deals candidly with the ACLU's less praiseworthy episodes--such as the expulsion of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from the Board during the ACLU's anti-Communist phase, and he dissects the organization's constant struggle within itself to define the proper scope of civil liberties, revealing facts that will surprise even members of the ACLU.
As Walker's engrossing story demonstrates, the history of the ACLU embodies some of the most important changes in American society in the twentieth century. The principles for which the organization has fought--such as free speech, fair play, equality, and privacy--are now accepted and cherished by Americans from all walks of life.

Author Notes

About the Author:
Samuel Walker is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author of Sense and Nonsense about Crime, The Police in America, Popular Justice, and A Critical History of Police Reform.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Walker describes the history, development, and legal battles of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). As a card-carrying ACLU member (he's also on the board of directors), Walker is familiar with the issues, personalities, and evolution of the institution devoted to securing the civil rights of all peoples, regardless of the popularity of the cause. The resulting portrait emphasizes the philosophical basis of the ACLU's work and balances out the distorted view of the organization that became an issue in the 1988 election campaign. Walker surveys the controversies the ACLU has experienced over the years, and he offers an excellent account of what the ACLU stands for, both historically and at present, and what it has accomplished. Among the more recent events covered are the Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois, the Bork nomination, and abortion rights. Notes, sources, bibliographic essay; index. --John Brosnahan

Library Journal Review

Walker (criminal justice, Univ. of Nebraska), an active American Civil Liberties Union member who had complete access to its archives, has written a comprehensive history of this unique and often controversial organization, which will celebrate its 70th anniversary next month. What emerges is a candid but sympathetic account of the ACLU's triumphs and defeats, its strengths and failings, and fascinating pen pictures of its charismatic but often quarrelsome leaders, particularly Roger Baldwin, who was the ACLU's first executive director until forced out in 1950 after 30 years. Walker makes plain that it was by fearlessly championing unpopular or even ``dangerous'' ideas of the time that the ACLU became a major force in shaping American attitudes on civil liberties. Highly recommended.-- Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., CUNY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

The story of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is, in large part, the story of the development of civil liberties in the US during the 20th century. Walker (criminal justice, University of Nebraska, Omaha) has written a highly readable, yet painstakingly academic, "warts and all" history of both the ACLU and the struggle for civil liberties in the US. From its humble and controversial origins as an elitist New York group with charter members Felix Frankfurter, Helen Keller, and Roger Baldwin, the ACLU has grown into a national organization of more than 275,000 members. During that period, the ACLU has taken the lead in the fight for liberty, first by direct action and later through litigation and education efforts. This comprehensively documented work examines not only those landmark issues and cases that shaped the nation, but also the internecine struggles within the ACLU itself; from the debates over appropriate means of action to the 1940 Resolution that expelled Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from its leadership, to its rebirth as the "new" ACLU after Skokie, to George Bush's ACLU bashing in the 1988 presidential election. Walker achieves his two goals admirably: he recounts the internal struggles of the ACLU but never loses sight of the larger historical and political context in which the fight for civil liberties in the US has taken place. The index, endnotes, and bibliographic essay are indispensable and exhaustive. Recommended for all levels of readers and for all libraries. -M. W. Bowers, University of Nevada, Las Vegas