The ACLU’s work in Focus: Reflections from an Internship

Reflections

The history of the ACLU of Missouri is the history of St. Louis – and, as the old saying goes, history repeats itself.

In 2014, police in St. Louis and the neighboring municipalities attained national notoriety. The police shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent Department of Justice reports on St. Louis and Ferguson policing became nationwide news stories. Within days of the Michael Brown shooting, the ACLU of Missouri filed multiple lawsuits against the City of Ferguson and its police on behalf of local protesters, residents, and members of the media.

Throughout this semester, I have combed through many files in the ACLU of Missouri archives looking for links between the organization’s history and present work. The archives chronicle almost a century of civil liberty controversies in the St. Louis region. As I flipped through hundreds of pages of correspondence, meeting minutes, reports and press releases, the relevance of the ACLU’s work came into focus. Specifically, St. Louis’s history of police violence and the ACLU’s history of holding police accountable extends far beyond Michael Brown’s death.

Michael Brown was not the first victim of police violence to be helped by the ACLU of Missouri. He wasn’t the first victim with the last name Brown. He wasn’t even the second…or third. ¹

In 1941, a young black man, Curtis Brown, was arrested then beaten by St. Louis City  Police officers. The St. Louis Civil Liberties Union (the forerunner to the ACLU of Missouri) provided funds for Curtis Brown’s legal defense, considered suing the abusive officer and helped coordinate press coverage.

Thirty-six years later in 1977, Thomas Brown, a mentally ill man, was detained as a larceny suspect by the Maplewood police. During the interrogation, an officer pointed his gun at Thomas Brown, hoping to intimidate him into confessing. Thomas Brown didn’t confess, and the officer fatally shot him. The ACLU of Missouri represented the Brown estate in a series of lawsuits against the officer, the Maplewood police department and the City of Maplewood.

In 1978, multiple St. Louis City Police officers killed Kevin Brown during an arrest in downtown St. Louis.  He had been repeatedly struck with a nightstick and kicked by the officers. The ACLU of Missouri publicized the tragedy and petitioned the U.S. Attorney to investigate.

Working in the ACLU of Missouri’s archives has shown me how – even with progress – there will always be another victim to fight for.

Andrew wearing a white shirt

Andrew Celli (WU Class of 2021) was the ACLU-MO history intern at Washington University Libraries, Spring 2019.

American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri Archive Internship

As part of an ongoing project between the Washington University Libraries’ Julian Edison Department of Special Collections and the ACLU of Missouri, student interns are reviewing the ACLU-MO’s archived records for themes, important historic turning points, and other notable moments in the organization’s nearly-hundred year history. The project began in 2017 and is expected to continue through 2020.

The academic internships are open to students enrolled in any local college or university.  For more information email spec@wumail.wustl.edu


 

¹Despite sharing the same last name, these men are not related.

About the author

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