ACLU-MO and Racial Justice: 1940s

ACLU-MO in the 1940s

In the years before World War II, the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee was a small organization. In March 1940 St. Louis had 47 members, and an annual budget of just under $300 (roughly $5,000 in 2020 dollars).  There was no paid staff.  Board meetings were held in officer’s living rooms.   Yet, the committee tackled a wide range of topics: military conscientious objectors, labor rights, academic freedoms, freedom of the press and “negro rights.”

Of these, the focus on rights for African Americans stands out, and makes the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee one of the earliest (majority) white organization in St. Louis to actively work for racial justice.

Partners

Starting in the 1940s, the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee began working with the local NAACP and Urban League chapters  on civil rights efforts.  This followed the pattern established by Roger Baldwin in founding the ACLU, ensuring that work on “inter-racial questions” was done in coordination with African American led organizations.

This racial justice work took several forms.  One was awareness. For instance, when planning the 1940 Civil Liberties Conference, the Bishop Tuttle Memorial Auditorium was selected because the venue had no limits on “admissions of negroes.”

Investigation continued to show the gross injustices African Americans met at the hands of police and the criminal courts.   And the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee took a further step in 1947 when they supported the US Supreme Court case Shelley v Kraemer, aimed at ending segregation in home ownership.

Criminal Justice

As in the 1930s, the main action taken was investigation.  In 1942 the St. Louis committee called an emergency meeting to discuss the lynching of Cleo Wright in Sikeston, Missouri (150 miles to the south).   A volunteer was sent to Sikeston where the NAACP was investigating, but it was ultimately determined there was little with which the civil libertarians could assist.

In some cases they became more involved, such as following the tragic death of William Howard in 1946.  An African American Army veteran, Howard was shot and killed by William Niggeman, a white off-duty police officer after an argument in an alley.  Soon questions surfaced of improper behavior following the failure to have a proper coroner inquest.   The St. Louis NAACP asked for federal help, and the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee worked with them to contact the US Attorney General.  Ultimately the FBI investigated, but in late 1947 declined to take any action, since no federal law was broken.  Niggeman faced no criminal charges, but did resign from the force.

door with shadow

Fitzpatrick political cartoon “Killing of William Howard / waiting for a hearing.” From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9/26/1946, page 2c

Segregated Housing

In 1945 the Shelley family purchased a home at 4600 Labadie Avenue, just a few streets over from the Ville neighborhood.  A white property owner on the street sued because the deed had a “restrictive covenant” preventing sale to African Americans or other minorities.  St. Louis attorney George Vaughn challenged the deed in Missouri courts, and appealed the Shelley’s case to the US Supreme Court in 1947 in Shelley v Kraemer.

The national ACLU wanted to wait for an airtight case, as recommended by national NAACP experts. The St. Louis committee, led by Eugene Buder, decided to support George Vaughn even without national approval.  They recognized that as an experienced  African American lawyer in St. Louis, Vaughn was well informed on the case.

This was the first US Supreme Court amicus curie or “friend of the court” ever filed by the St. Louis Civil Liberties affiliate. Eugene Buder filed the amicus himself, paying the fees out of pocket.

 In 1948, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Shelleys, declaring that enforcement of racial deed restrictions violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Brochures and flyers from the 1940s. From the Washington University Library, ACLU-MO Records, series 3, box 9.

Continuing efforts

In the following decades, the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee’s focus on racial justice continued.  It greatly expanded in the 1950s and 1960s as the civil rights movement grew across the nation.   Now, in the 21st century, racial justice continues as a key focus of the the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

woman holding sign "#Black Lives Matter"

Racial Justice webpage from the ACLU-MO, May 2020

More

Dominic J. Capeci, Jr., The lynching of Cleo Wright (University Press of Kentucky, c1998)

“Killing of William Howard” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9/26/1946, page 2C

“Seek Federal Probe in Slaying of Negro Vet” Chicago Defender, 11/9/1946, page 19c

“FBI to Investigate William Howard Case” Chicago Defender 11/23/1946 page 19

“US Won’t Act in in Killing Here of Negro by Officer” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12/6/1947 page 3

Shelley v Kraemer (1948)

Jeffrey D. Gonda. Unjust deeds : the restrictive covenant cases and the making of the civil rights movement. (University of North Carolina Press, 2015)

 


 

ACLU-MO @ 100

This post is part of a series in recognition of the American Civil Liberty Union of Missouri’s centennial year (1920-2020). Read more stories at: https://library.wustl.edu/tag/ACLU-MO@100/

If you have a question about this post or other topics related to St. Louis history, I can be reached at mrectenwald@wustl.edu or on Twitter: @mrectenwald.

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.