History of the ACLU of Oregon

A Brief History of the ACLU of Oregon

How We Started
This country might well have looked to 1920 as one of the best of years -- for democracy was ascendant after World War I and everyone was nurturing a hope for a better, richer life. But instead, it was one of the worst of years. Democratic rights were for nations, not individuals; conformity was a god, dissent was blasphemy; minorities were scorned or ignored; the Bill of Rights was swept under the rug. And almost no one cared.

But Roger Baldwin cared and he brought together other caring people in 1920 and founded the American Civil Liberties Union. This lighted a flickering candle that blazed stronger with every display of governmental intolerance, complacency and ignorance of the Constitution.

The ACLU was born to fight the civil rights battles of 1920 but it lasted because Baldwin knew, as he put it, "No fight for civil liberties ever stays won." He knew, as well, that unless there is liberty for all, there is likely to be liberty for none.

Thus the ACLU settled in for a fight it knew it would have to renew after each victory; knew it would have to work again in each generation to make clear that freedom of speech is for every speech, however misguided; freedom of religion is for every religion, however far from tradition; freedom of press is for every publication, however ill-informed; freedom of assembly is for every group meeting for whatever peaceful purpose; and due process is for every person in America -- citizen or alien, student or teacher, wise or stupid, of whatever color -- living under protection of the Bill of Rights.

All this was unpopular in the climate of hysteria, fear and distrust of alien ideas that marked the years after World War I. That is why the ACLU was needed.

The American Civil Liberties Union fought for the radicals, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and although the case was lost, it made a dent in American apathy toward civil rights. It fought the jailing of persons whose crime was, in one case, reading sections of the Declaration of Independence in public. It fought unwarranted raids on people's homes, and opposed the Ku Klux Klan whose resurgence spread so widely it very nearly held political control even in Oregon. In its most publicized case the ACLU attacked the Tennessee law forbidding schools to teach the theory of evolution.

In these cases and hundreds more, the ACLU looked to concerned Americans in every state who became designated "correspondents" who would report, counsel, and aid.

The first Oregonian known to have been a member of the ACLU was the widely known Portland lawyer, C.E.S. Wood. The first from this state to become a member of the national board was William U'Ren, better known as the father of the initiative, referendum and recall, who served from 1920 to 1935. Millie Trumbull was a member of the national board from 1931 to 1936.

Oregonians, in small numbers, joined the ACLU in the 1920s and were active in writing letters to newspapers, calling civil rights violations to the attention of officials, and participating in court cases.

By 1933 the members formed a committee with Henry Minor Esterly as chairman, the first record of a semi-formal organization. From the 1920’s through the McCarthy era of the 1950’s, the ACLU was thought by many to be subversive, and records on it were kept by both the FBI and the Portland police. (The latter continued its file-keeping until at least 1974!) Some of the only records we now have of the early-day membership were obtained from FBI files.

After Esterly, Oregon chairmen during the 1930’s were L.A. Murphy, Gus J. Solomon, the Rev. Ross Waldron Anderson, David C. Epps, the Rev. Richard M. Steiner and B.A. Green. Others who participated in the committee's activities included Mrs. Richard K. Nunn, Miss Lucy K. Trevett, Mrs. Robert Strong, Samuel P. Lockwood, Harry Kenin, George Bernard Noble and Kelly Loe.

By the end of the 1930’s, however, the Oregon committee had lost its momentum, and in 1941 it ceased to exist. B.A. Green served as Oregon correspondent for the national Union until 1948. He was succeeded as Oregon correspondent by Gus Solomon who served until 1949 when he was appointed to the federal district court. Allan Hart succeeded Judge Solomon and served until 1955.

Oregon Affiliate Founded in 1955
In 1955 through the efforts of Allan Hart, Paul Meyer, Jonathan Newman, Judah Bierman and many others, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon was formed. The first officers of the new affiliate were Judah Bierman, chair; Richard Nahstoll, vice chair; Jonathan Newman, secretary; and Myron Katz, treasurer.

Also in 1955, E.B. MacNaughton, Portland banker, publisher and college board president, was elected chairman of the national ACLU's Advisory Council. He held that post until his death in 1960.

In its first newsletter, the Oregon affiliate told its members it would "act wherever and whenever necessary in matters involving civil liberties in this state." It had much on which to act: Witch-hunting of all kinds, censorship, loyalty oaths, blacklisting, church-state separation, racial discrimination and on and on.

Stevie Remington retired at the end of 1992 after twenty-one years as Executive Director. Stevie opened our first office in 1971. Since 1971 the organization has grown from an annual budget of not more than $20,000 to about $1,000,000. Membership has increased from approximately 1,000 members in 1970 to over 10,000 by 2010.

David Fidanque became Executive Director of the Oregon ACLU in 1993 after eleven years as Associate Director for the Southern District office. In addition to the Executive Director, the current staff has 9 full or part-time members who support our education, litigation, lobbying and development programs, as well as caring for the administration of the organization.

Office volunteers help answer the 17,000+ telephone calls and letters directed to the ACLU of Oregon offices each year. A significant portion of these calls are requests for ACLU assistance. Most of these are handled by our volunteer request counselors who help to bring order to an often chaotic situation.

The Oregon ACLU continues to fight threats to individual liberties. It lobbies in the state legislature to protect existing civil rights legislation and to fend off laws that would imperil constitutionally guaranteed rights. It seeks, through the news media, to enlist public support for what are, after all, the public's rights.

In its most visible role, the ACLU goes to court. Its extensive litigation is made possible by the dedication and generosity of more than 200 cooperating attorneys -- lawyers who volunteer their time to research the law and pursue the cases in court without a penny of compensation.

However, we cannot always rely on the courts to protect the basic rights of individuals. Consequently, shaping public opinion and appealing to legislatures has become more and more important in recent years. To further our goals in the arena of public opinion we also defend civil liberties in Oregon through public education.

Through legislation, litigation and education, the ACLU is working to defend the civil liberties of all Americans.

-- Gordon McNab
(with minor editing to update the history)