As 2015 draws to a close, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland prepares to celebrate its 85th year. Since March 8, 1931, the ACLU of Maryland has been on a mission to breathe life into the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and civil rights laws. This year we reflect on lessons learned.

In 1931, no criminally accused person in any state court had the right to appointed counsel. Threats of lynching were rampant on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A fledgling Maryland ACLU represented Euel Lee, a Black man charged with murder, threatened with lynching, and denied counsel. The ACLU won a change of venue, though sadly he was executed. The 1940s saw our first Supreme Court case, in which we argued that Smith Betts, a Black man who was tried and found guilty of robbery, should have had benefit of counsel. The court disagreed. Not until 1963 did it overturn Betts v. Brady.

Securing rights through the courts can be an important foundation for a civil rights movement. In 1939, the National ACLU convinced the Supreme Court in the case Hague v. CIO that a ban on political meetings violated the First Amendment. That early First Amendment case was a foundation for ACLU of Maryland victories in the 1960s and 1970s when we represented:

  • Maryland Planned Parenthood, which was forced to cancel a meeting because the Catholic archdiocese objected;
  • Protesters, including Jane Fonda, soliciting signatures on an anti-war petition among soldiers at Fort Meade;
  • United Farm Workers picketing for a grape boycott; • People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protesting a circus;
  • Students forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance;
  • Homeowners touting political yard signs; and
  • One fledgling filmmaker, John Waters, who was sprung from jail by ACLU Legal Counsel Elsbeth Bothe after filming a nude scene for the film Mondo Trasho.

We’ve learned that it’s important to think big. Until the 1970s, our successes were largely modeled on vindicating individual rights. But Maryland’s legacy of Jim Crow perpetuates institutional racism even in the absence of racist individuals. Beginning in the 1980s, the ACLU mounted cases on behalf of thousands of Black Marylanders, addressing institutional racism:

  • Challenging the state police policy of stopping motorists for “driving while black;”
  • Securing more than $1.1 billion in additional state funding to help the state’s poorest children get educated;
  • Pressing HUD to cease decades of discrimination against Black families in public housing;
  • Bringing voting rights suits that enabled Black candidates on the Eastern Shore to win elected seats for the first time.

ACLU founder Roger Baldwin warned “No battle for civil liberties ever stays won.” The ACLU of Maryland was birthed amid abuses of power. Now we face new abuses in the form of police-involved killings, lack of police accountability, government secrecy, and more. We are actors in a rerun, with many rights won in previous generations now threatened again. ACLU stands on the front lines, strong and edified by lessons learned over 85 years.

Coleman Bazelon, Board President

Susan Goering, Executive Director