After 32 years at the ACLU I (Susan Goering) will retire in 2018, and I find myself taking stock of ACLU’s progress. We are in dark times now. Weawaken most mornings to another assault on the rights we cherish. My first thought is: “someone should do something about that.” My second thought is “the ACLU is doing something about it.”

It was also a dark time in 1920, when the national ACLU was founded. Over 160 years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, rights existed only on paper. There was no freedom for minority religions. Women had no right to vote, let alone a right to family planning and contraception. Masses of immigrants from Eastern Europe were being detained and deported without due process.

In 1920, Black families, many of whom had been slaves, were terrorized by Jim Crow laws in Maryland. Lynching was commonplace on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Workers had no right to organize unions, strike, picket, leaflet, or meet in factories without suffering violence. In 1920, the Supreme Court had never struck down a law on First Amendment grounds. The freedom to publish and speak, existed only if the majority agreed with you, which left Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Black people, and labor unions—those least likely to afford a lawyer—without rights.

In 1931, moved to action by lynchings on the Eastern Shore, the Maryland ACLU founders first gathered.

In the ‘50s McCarthy era—a time of loyalty tests—we opposed the state legislature’s passage of the nation’s most stringent such test. We represented black-listed professors and lawyers, and terminated Bethlehem Steel workers. Also in the ‘50s we challenged school-mandated prayer and the requirement that state Notaries Public declare a belief in God. During the 50s and 60s Civil Rights Movement we defended picketers and protesters arrested for demonstrating against segregation at parks, and restaurants. And we represented citizens jailed for violating Baltimore City’s curfew during the uprising that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

We successfully appealed to the Supreme Court to strike down Maryland’s film censorship law. In the ’70s the ACLU represented Jane Fonda for soliciting anti-war petition signatures among soldiers at Ft. Meade. And we represented the free speech rights of Black Panthers for advocating overthrow of the U.S. government.

By the mid-80s the ACLU of Maryland had hired three full-time staff members and within ten years quadrupled its staff. We opened a satellite office on the Shore, which made a far broader agenda possible, including many voting rights cases brought on behalf of disenfranchised Black communities.

We spearheaded the “Marylanders for the Right to Choose” coalition that helped pass a pro-choice law and successfully defend it at statewide referendum. We were on the vanguard of the fight for marriage equality for same-sex couples—through litigation, legislation, and advocacy, finally securing it in 2012.

In the 1980s long before the term “institutional racism” was common parlance the ACLU of Maryland brought a number of successful, ongoing class action style lawsuits with the goal of dismantling deeply entrenched, racialized education, housing, criminal justice policies, and of ensuring voting rights Eastern Shore. All of these systems had disproportionately affected communities of color in Maryland at least as far back as the turn of the 20th Century.

Our current work harkens back to our previous work. Trump’s Muslim travel ban echoes the 1920s mass detention and deportation of immigrants. In January 2017, the ACLU was the first to win a court ruling stopping the Muslim ban. Trump’s attempt to boot transgender service members out of the military echoes the earlier “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for lesbian and gay soldiers. The ACLU is in court now asking that a transgender service member from Maryland and others be protected from this latest hurtful and irrational policy.

And with echoes far too strong of atrocities in Maryland’s past, now too many Black families live in terror of police killings, which regularly go unpunished. The ACLU of Maryland has made it one of our top priorities to increase police accountability and reduce mass incarceration.

Past and present, challenging injustice is what the ACLU of Maryland is all about. I do believe: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

All my best,

Susan Goering

Executive Director of the ACLU of Maryland

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