The ACLU of Massachusetts was formed in in 1920, the same year as the national ACLU. As the first state affiliate in the ACLU network, the ACLU of Massachusetts remains a nationwide leader in defense of civil rights and civil liberties.
The ACLU of Massachusetts itself started when a small group of people met in the Beacon Hill home of Margaret Shurcliff to join the call of Massachusetts-born ACLU founder Roger Baldwin to resist a widespread government crackdown on anti-war dissenters, labor organizers, and immigrants that was taking place just after World War I.
Together, they formed the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Committee, later known as the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (CLUM) and, ultimately, the ACLU of Massachusetts. Thus began a nearly century-long quest to defend and extend the boundaries of freedom in Massachusetts and beyond.
Forming the ACLU took extraordinary courage and hopefulness. In 1920, the U.S. Supreme Court had yet to uphold a single free speech claim. Activists languished in jail for distributing anti-war literature. State-sanctioned violence against African Americans was routine. Women won the vote only that year. Constitutional rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people were almost unthinkable. But since then, one case and one legislative battle at a time, the ACLU has become the enforcement mechanism for liberty and justice for all.
The ACLU’s early work focused on freedom of speech. In the 1920s, the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts stepped in to defend birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger’s right to speak on the Boston Common. In 1936, we challenged the ban on publication of Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” which was considered scandalous due to its “lesbian content.” In 1938, CLUM opposed efforts by Boston Police Commissioner Joseph F. Timilty to “ban in Boston” issues of Life magazine, simply for featuring a story called “The Birth of a Baby.”
In the 1950s, the Massachusetts affiliate broke with the national ACLU over defending people who became targets of the Red Scare purges. Led by then-executive director Luther Macnair, CLUM lawyers stood with the people summoned by the federal House Committee on Un-American Activities and its local counterpart in Boston.
The Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts again broke with the national ACLU in 1968, announcing that it was willing to defend the famous pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock and four other anti-war activists who had organized “Stop the Draft” week.
Under the leadership of its second executive director, John W. Roberts, the organization expanded its equality and racial justice docket. During this time, CLUM won the case Moe v. Secretary of Administration and Finance, securing a Massachusetts woman’s right to reproductive choice under the Massachusetts state constitution. CLUM also became a bulwark against the death penalty and led efforts to challenge racial profiling in traffic stops—the “Driving while Black or Brown” campaign.
In 2007, the ACLU of Massachusetts helped lead efforts to defend equal marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples in the state legislature, and we continue to press for equal rights and access to public accommodations for LGBTQ people in the Commonwealth.
More recently, the ACLU of Massachusetts launched our Technology for Liberty and Justice for All initiatives, bringing civil rights and civil liberties firmly into the digital age.
Our Technology for Liberty initiative works to ensure that laws protecting privacy and individual liberty keep pace with new technology—and that technology is put in the service of liberty. The right to video record the police in the performance of official duties, as well as protections against government tracking of cell phones without a warrant are just two of the many recent victories.
The Justice for All initiative works with traditionally underserved communities to ensure that due process, freedom speech, and equal protection under the law are guaranteed for all residents of the Commonwealth.
Recent victories include defending the right of Black Lives Matter protestors to march and speak out; reforms to police practices to address racial bias; challenges to indefinite detention without due process for immigrants; and ensuring equal access to reproductive health care for poor women.
The ACLU remains the nation’s leading defender of basic civil rights and civil liberties, for all of us. For nearly 100 hundred years, the ACLU has been at the center of one critical, history-making court case after another—re-shaping and expanding the definition of freedom in America.
Underlying all this work is our membership—people from every walk of life. Like those who gathered in that Boston living room in 1920, our members understand that freedom does not defend itself.
For rights to be real, ordinary people must join together in defense of liberty.
Together with you, as we have for nearly a century, the ACLU will continue to lead freedom forward.
—Carol Rose, Executive Director ACLU of Massachusetts
Learn more about the history of the ACLU nationwide at aclu.org/aclu-history.