ACLU-MO Early Years: 1930s

The St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee began on May 7, 1920, with about a dozen volunteers, both men and women. For its first decades, the group and its actions remained focused on advocacy and education about civil rights.

By 1932, the national ACLU noted that St. Louis was focusing “chiefly on two issues — the conflict between police and unemployed demonstrators, and the strike of coal miners in Illinois.” In the local chapter’s earliest brochures, volunteers noted they “maintained a persistent interest in the encroachment upon the rights and liberties of citizens by illegal and improper police practices.”

The 1930s

Early on, the St. Louis Committee mainly focused on investigating and raising awareness through educational programs. When funding could be secured, they went to court on behalf of those arrested while exercising their rights to free speech and free assembly.

In June 1932, the St. Louis Committee appealed the conviction of two men charged with destruction of property because they posted flyers organizing a local protest meeting over the arrests of African-American teenagers in Scottsboro, Alabama. Few records remain from these early years, but the national ACLU did send funds to help with court costs. The names of those arrested, however, are not listed, making it difficult to locate further information about the case.

Whitehouse with protesters in front carring sign "Mr. President Fee the Scottsboro Boys!"

Informational pamphlet about the Scottosboro protests, 1932. From the State Historical Society of Missouri, ACLU Pamphlets Collection C2537, folder 183.

Another example is from 1935, when St. Louis civil liberties volunteers investigated how police dispersed a crowd of about 1,500 men and women protesting at the St. Louis Relief Administration offices. On July 23, police arrived with patrol wagons and began “shoving, pushing, and beating men and women indiscriminately.” Ralph Fuchs, president of the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee and a professor of law at Washington University, described what he saw at the protest:

“As an eye-witness to what took place, I wish to say in this open letter that in my judgement, the responsible police authorities own an apology to the citizens of St. Louis because of the trampling upon American rights and the consequent danger to American institutions which characterized police handling of an American Workers’ Union demonstration …Prior to the arrival of a patrol load of police at the scene of the disturbance the conduct of everyone concerned with the ‘workers’ ‘ demonstration was beyond criticism.  The police previously on duty were tolerant and decent, and at their request the way was kept open for all traffic, vehicular and on foot.  For the most part, the crowd of 500 or more was quiet, although a few were singing….There was no disturbance of any kind. Then the brutality began.

Apparently under orders to clear the walks, the police from a newly-arrived patrol started rudely and with the use of clubs to clear the sidewalk…As the crowd dispersed to the east and across a vacant lot, the police pursued them, using rough tactics and bad language towards such as stood their ground or talked back.  A number of arrests were made. After the crowd had gone, innocent individuals, standing alone, were illegally ordered to leave…As an individual and on behalf of other members of the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee, I wish to protest most emphatically against your conduct… I do so with full appreciation of the difficult role the police are called upon to play and with the continued belied that on the whole they perform their duty conscientiously and well.”

[Read the full text of his letter, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.]

Both the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee and the American Worker’s Union submitted complaints. Chief of Police McCarthy recommended no action against officers involved. Police Commissioner Albert Bond Lambert stated that “serious trouble might have resulted if police had not dispersed the crowd.” Five people were arrested on peace disturbance charges, which were all later dismissed. (Post-Dispatch 8/6/1935, page 10a)

Funding placed a serious limit on efforts, as illustrated by the case of striking worker Joe Morris. During a mining strike in Potosi, Missouri, Morris spoke out and criticized a local judge. A different judge then held him in contempt and fined him $50. The St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee worked to appeal the Morris case to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1936. In a plea for donations published in the Post-Dispatch, the local group noted it was “now in the red on this case –- and also generally” and asked that financial contributions be sent to Ivan H. Light, 5465 Cabanne Ave, St. Louis.  (Post-Dispatch 1/2/1936, page 2C)

St. Louis situation

Compared to other parts of the United States, the St. Louis area, and Missouri in general, did face fewer civil liberty challenges in the 1920s and early 1930s. The primary exception to this was in the area of policing.

And criminal justice reform and ending the abuse of police power remain key areas of policy focus for the ACLU-MO in the 21st century.

map of USA

“State Laws Restricting Civil Liberties,” 1931. From the State Historical Society of Missouri, ACLU Pamphlets Collection C2537, folder 94.

More

Read more newspaper coverage about the ACLU in Missouri during the 1930s from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Library users with a WUSTL key can also access the full issues via ProQuest, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1874 – 2003).


ACLU-MO @ 100

This post is part of a series in recognition of the American Civil Liberties 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.