Thursday, February 28, 2013

The ACLU's Long Battle for Racial Justice

by ACLU-PA Executive Director Reggie Shuford

Last Sunday, I attended a 50th anniversary celebration of the landmark Supreme Court case, Abington v. Schempp, which established that students cannot be required to read the Bible in public schools. Schempp was brought by the Philadelphia Chapter of the ACLU, what would eventually become the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The ACLU is well known for its work to protect First Amendment rights like the religious liberty principles at issue in Schempp. It’s likewise known for protecting the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Last week, for example, the ACLU-PA was in court arguing on behalf of middle school students’ right to wear a bracelet supporting breast cancer awareness, which reads:  “I [Heart] Boobies. Keep A Breast.”

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 primaries (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 bans 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. Just yesterday, the ACLU and allies from the Legal Defense Fund were back before the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, in an effort to preserve Section 5 of the VRA. Roger Baldwin was right when he said, “No fight for civil liberties ever stays won.” 

In recent years, the ACLU has led the fight against racial profiling, to preserve affirmative action, and to end the school-to-prison pipeline. In Pennsylvania, we recently sued the Pittsburgh Police Department for its racially discriminatory hiring practices.  A few years ago, we sued the Philadelphia Police Department for targeting African-Americans and Latinos with its stop-and-frisk practices and continue to monitor those activities.

A current priority of the ACLU is criminal justice reform. The criminal justice 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. 

Last fall, in Adkins et al. v. Morgan Stanley, the ACLU, on behalf of black homeowners, sued Morgan Stanley for its predatory lending practices. While many families lost their homes in the recent foreclosure crisis, black and Latino families were especially hard hit. The case, the first of its kind, has been called perhaps the most important civil rights case in a generation.
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.

This post is part of a series honoring Black History Month.

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