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About Us > A Brief History of the ACLU of Alabama

The American Civil Liberties Union’s battle to protect and expand the civil liberties and civil rights of Alabamians has a long and rich history. That history began when the ACLU raised money for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. In the 1940s, the organization represented striking coal miners and other labor organizers. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the ACLU collaborated with its closest partner, the NAACP, to thwart the government’s attempts to break the back of the civil rights movement. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the organization’s historic voting rights work permanently altered the political landscape in Alabama. Throughout these five decades and beyond, the ACLU has been dedicated to making the promises of the Bill of Rights a reality for the people of Alabama.

The Alabama affiliate of the ACLU was established in 1965. A small office in a hostile environment, the ACLU of Alabama established a permanent presence in the state. While the FBI opened a dossier and infiltrated the organization, the affiliate began fighting civil liberties and civil rights battles with national implications.

In the landmark case Wyatt v. Stickney, the ACLU of Alabama, along with other groups, sued the State over conditions in the mental health system, which could only be described as Dickensian at the time. After years of litigation, the plaintiffs forced a settlement to reform the system, setting the national standards for state-run mental health systems. Sadly, it took the next twenty-nine years to get the State of Alabama to live up to its commitment and fully meet the standards laid out by the court.

In the 1970s and 1980s the ACLU of Alabama, often in coalition with other civil rights groups, challenged over 200 at-large voting systems across the state. These successful legal challenges assured “one person, one vote,” thus rectifying the dilution of African-American voting strength in the state. These voting rights challenges, augmented by grass-roots organizing efforts, redrew the political map of Alabama, providing an opportunity for political participation - regardless of race – from local school boards to Congressional offices. Over two decades of work culminated in 1992 with the election of the first African-American Congressman from Alabama since Reconstruction.

In addition to its voting rights work during these years, the ACLU challenged the hiring practices of Alabama government at all levels from the State Farm Extension Service to the Public Television system. Although abuses continue, governmental agencies in Alabama are substantially more open to all of its citizens due to the efforts of the ACLU of Alabama.

Today, right wing forces in Alabama, and across the nation, are attempting to wipe out the hard-won gains of the last quarter century. Nonetheless, the ACLU of Alabama does more than fight to preserve the victories of the past; it is fighting to protect future generations.

When a child was taken from his home and – without evaluation – placed in a mental hospital, the ACLU of Alabama was there to see that in the future poverty would not be used as an excuse for the State to break-up a family and, in the name of child protection, dump children in the hopeless cycle of an indifferent and uncaring foster care system. Due to the rulings in RC v. Nachman, the foster care system in Alabama was completely overhauled. In this landmark case, the ACLU of Alabama represented all children in, or at risk of being taken into, Alabama’s foster care system.

From 1991 through 2002, the ACLU of Alabama also represented all Alabama schoolchildren who receive an inadequate and inequitable education. In the most important lawsuit in recent Alabama history, Harper v. James, plaintiffs obtained a ruling striking down a 1956 Amendment to Alabama’s Constitution passed in an effort to subvert Brown through removal of the right to an education from Alabama’s Constitution. The plaintiffs also obtained Liability Order requiring the State to provide an equitable and adequate education for all public schoolchildren in Alabama. The parties were engaged in the remedial phase of the case under the jurisdiction of the trial judge when Alabama’s Supreme Court, absent the motion of either party, ruled that the courts did not have the authority to order a remedy in the case and effectively dismissed the litigation. The ruling on the Brown era Constitutional Amendment stands as does the Liability Order in the case.

Even though most of the ills and disparities of the school system remain, the State did make meaningful improvements while the case was pending and as a result of pressure the case generated. These improvements include an overhaul of the entire education finance structure, resulting in a slight reduction in the disparities between systems; a small increase in the funds available to all systems; the passage of two major bond issues that have supported much needed renovation and expansion of facilities in poor systems; and a shift in the financing of transportation costs so that those costs are now totally paid by state dollars, alleviating a significant burden on poor school systems.

When resources permit, the ACLU of Alabama also works through community outreach and organizing. An example of one such effort culminated in the fall of 2003 when the Alabama Legislature and Governor rectified an enduring post-reconstruction injustice by passing a law providing for the restoration of voting rights for most ex-felons in the state who have completed parole and paid all restitution. In Alabama one of three adult African –American males has been disenfranchised, and the disenfranchisement rate for the state overall is the second highest in the country, following Florida. The new law, retroactively applied, provides for the re-enfranchisement of a minimum of 241,000 people now and many thousands more in the years to come.

Institutional reform begins by protecting the rights of individuals. Since its inception, the ACLU of Alabama has represented hundreds of individuals in lawsuits, complaints and hearings. From a sixty-two-year old worker who was fired because he wanted to take his grandchildren to church to Gay and Lesbian Students who wanted to form a campus organization, the ACLU of Alabama has been here to protect the rights of Alabama citizens regardless of their popularity or politics.

Over these years the ACLU of Alabama has also been ever vigilant in our efforts to preserve the separation of church and state, bringing and winning many highly visible cases as well as preventing government entanglement with religion through numerous less visible actions annually. Likewise, we are steadfast in our defense of free speech and have worked to strengthen the rights of gays and lesbians and preserve reproductive freedom.

The ACLU’s principles are those of the Bill of Rights. The ACLU of Alabama continues the ACLU’s eighty-five year tradition of defending the rights of even the least popular members of society, for when those rights are lost for one, they are lost for all.

The ACLU of Alabama is an affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and is a non-profit, private organization. It receives no state or federal government funding. Operating on a budget of less than $250,000 a year, the ACLU of Alabama maintains an office in Montgomery. A volunteer Board of Directors oversees the operation of the organization and is responsible for its governance. The ACLU of Alabama Foundation is funded through donations from persons in Alabama interested in furthering the work of the organization. Donations to the ACLU of Alabama’s Foundation are shared with the national ACLU. Tax-deductible donations to the ACLU of Alabama Foundation are always needed and always appreciated.

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