ACLU-MO History Spotlight: Liberty in Times of Crisis 

Liberty in Times of Crisis

A foundational concept of the ACLU since its founding in 1920 has been a particular attention to rights (especially  free speech, rights to assembly, rights to organize, personal privacy) during times of war and national crisis.

Two notable moments where individual liberties were diminished in times of crisis include the 1950s fear of communists infiltrating the government and the anti-terrorism policies after September 11, 2001.

flyer for Herblock on "Security through fear?" with introduction from editorial cartoonist D.R. Fitzpatrick. Shows cartoon with man on ladder climbing torch of Lady Liberty.

From ACLU-MO Records (wua00355), Series 3, Box 39, Committee 1956

1950s

In 1955, a young African-American man, “Mr. Hill,” was suspended from his government job as a messenger for the VA Hospital. He was accused of going to communist meetingsone at the Art Theater for a free film and another at the public library. Mr. Hill was targeted as part of the Cold War hysteria that communists were infiltrating the federal government. 

Volunteers from the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee attended the security hearing and tred to speak up for Mr. Hill’s rights. Realizing Mr. Hill’s case “illustrates so many of the violations of our liberties existing under the present security rulings, the Civil Liberties Committee worked with St. Louis’ new public television station, KETC channel 9, to broadcast a dramatic recreation of the hearing. 

(*Mr. Hill was the pseudonym used by the Civil Liberties Committee to protect his privacy.)

script for TV show

Script for the educational public television show about security hearings. From ACLU-MO (wua00355),
Series 3, Box 39, Committee 1955-1968

The St. Louis committee helped labor organizer William Sentner—one of five Missourians convicted of violating the Smith Act for speaking about communism and opposing the United States support for war in Korea.   

UE fights for a better America. Workers marching with signs and American flag.

Labor booklet. From the William Sentner Papers (wua00370), series 5, box 11.

In 1958, Sentner appealed his conviction, and the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee filed an amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief in support. Although the courts ordered a new trial, Sentner tragically died of heart failure before it could be held. 

This needless war must stop! Five Missourians are jailed under the Smity Act becuase they helped organize the Demand for Peace in Korea. Photo of soldiers.

From the William Sentner Papers (wua00370), series 5, box 12, Korean War.

2001

The federal government implemented the USAPATRIOT Act after September 11, 2001. This law resulted in warrant-less searches and seizures, spying on US citizens, and the jailing of thousands in secret without charges. People of Arab or South Asian descent were especially targeted. 

American Flag "Civil Liberties After 9/11 The ACLU Defends Freedom"

The ACLU Defends Freedom: A Historical Perspective on Protecting Liberty in Times of Crisis (National ACLU, 2002).  [full text pdf online] From ACLU-MO Records (wua00355), Series 5, Subseries 2, Box 6, folder Post 9/11, 1 of 2

The ACLU of Eastern Missouri and the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis created “Know your Rights” brochures in Arabic, Farsi, and other languages.

Know Your Rights brochures. From ACLU-MO Records (wua00355), Series 5, Subseries 2, Box 6, Post 9/11 Muslim community outreach

Volunteer monitors watched for human rights violations at immigration offices. Booklets and posters helped educate everyone about the impacts to civil liberties. 

Human rights monitor name tags and rights cards. From ACLU-MO Records (wua00355), Series 5, Subseries 2, Box 6, Post 9/11 Muslim community outreach

After numerous court cases across the nation, parts of the PATRIOT Act were changed in 2005. It was replaced by modified version, the USA Freedom Act, in 2015.

More

Fuerer, Rosemary.  Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950 (University of Illinois Press, 2006)

Johnson, Walter. The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. (Basic Books, 2020)

Goldstein, Robert Justin. “Prelude to McCarthyism: The Making of a Blacklist.” Prologue National Archives and Records Administration 38, no. 3 (Fall 2006).

The ACLU Defends Freedom: A Historical Perspective on Protecting Liberty in Times of Crisis (National ACLU, 2002).  [full text pdf online]

 


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.