Roger Baldwin (1884–1981)

Roger Baldwin was the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and served as its director from 1920 to 1950. He was widely recognized as the foremost advocate of civil liberties in the United States during those years.

Baldwin was born January 21, 1884, in Wellesley, Massachusetts to an old New England family that traced its roots back to the first English settlers. His father was a successful businessman in the leather goods industry. His religious background was in the Unitarian Church, and Baldwin inherited a liberal, freethinking outlook that emphasized social reform. Family members associated with prominent social and political reformers. Through his father, for example, he met attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. His uncle William Baldwin was president of the Long Island Railroad and actively involved in social reform, including child labor and racial justice. Baldwin graduated from Harvard University in 1905 and earned a graduate degree in social work the following year.

He moved to St. Louis in 1906 to take a job as a social worker and remained there until early 1917. A person of boundless energy, Baldwin immediately became a prominent social reformer whose views reflected the goals of Progressive Era reforms. In 1910, he organized and became the secretary of the St. Louis Civic League, and through this organization was involved in many social reform issues. He taught social work courses at Washington University from 1906 to 1910. He helped to establish the first juvenile court in St. Louis and co-authored with Bernard Flexner Juvenile Courts and Probation (1914), a detailed manual on the goals and management of a juvenile court that gained a national audience. Baldwin was also active in the National Probation Association and other national organizations. Articles by or about him appeared in national publications, and he earned a national reputation as an energetic reformer.

Despite his subsequent claims, Baldwin was not an advocate of civil liberties during his years in St. Louis. He met controversial birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and anarchist Emma Goldman when they spoke in St. Louis. Although they and other speakers faced restrictions on their right to speak, Baldwin remained a rather conventional Progressive Era reformer who optimistically believed that they could and should serve the interests of the majority of the people. He did not at this time see a fundamental conflict between government actions reflecting majority opinion and the rights of individuals or unpopular groups. Baldwin was a vigorous advocate of racial equality at a time when few whites supported the rights of African Americans. He generated controversy, for example, in presenting an African-American speaker at Washington University. Race played a significant role in moving Baldwin’s political thinking in a more radical direction. A referendum in St. Louis that approved racial segregation in housing greatly disillusioned his faith in majoritarian democracy. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, meanwhile, shattered his optimism about social progress.

By early 1917, Baldwin was increasingly concerned about possible American entry into World War I, and in March of that year he moved to New York City to work with the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), a pacifist organization opposing American entry into the war. He and Crystal Eastman soon established a Civil Liberties Bureau (CLB) within the AUAM to provide assistance to young men facing military service who sought conscientious objector status. At this point Baldwin’s understanding of civil liberties took shape.

After the United States declared war in April 1917, the Civil Liberties Bureau not only provided assistance to conscientious objectors but also opposed censorship of individuals and organizations opposed to the war. Eventually, the CLB’s own publications were banned from the mails by the U.S. Post Office. Baldwin and Eastman’s activities in this regard provoked a split within the AUAM. The organization’s leaders did not want to alienate the Wilson administration in the hope that they would be able to influence the eventual peace ending the war. In July 1917, the two factions agreed to split, and Baldwin and Eastman established a separate organization, the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB). The NCLB was the direct forerunner of the ACLU.

In the summer of 1918, Baldwin received notice to report for induction into the military. Although he was thirty-four years old, the draft had been extended to cover people up to age thirty-five. Opposed to conscription as a matter of principle, he refused to report for induction and was subsequently convicted and sentenced to prison. A number of prominent reformers attended his trial, and his speech to the judge setting forth the reasons for his opposition to conscription was reprinted and widely circulated around the country. Baldwin served eight months in prison in New Jersey. During this time he reflected on the issues of free speech and due process raised by the wartime repression of dissent.

Upon leaving prison in July 1919, Baldwin traveled around the country for several months, often working in blue-collar jobs and contemplating his future. This experience was his first direct contact with working people and the labor movement. Later that year, Baldwin and other former NCLB leaders concluded that a permanent organization was needed to fight for civil liberties. They established the ACLU, which was officially born in January 1920 with Baldwin as its director.

Baldwin immediately established the style of activity that he would maintain over the next thirty years as director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He devoted his energies primarily to public education about civil liberties, giving numerous speeches and writing many articles. Almost all of his writings were topical, addressing particular cases or controversies. Baldwin himself was not an intellectual and never wrote a complete statement of his philosophy of civil liberties. He described himself as a philosophical anarchist, but he never subscribed to any specific political doctrine. For many years, Baldwin took trips across the United States, speaking on civil liberties and enlisting support for the ACLU. These trips helped to establish his national reputation as a civil liberties advocate.

The ACLU was governed by a board of directors that met weekly in New York City to decide on organizational policy. Although a strong advocate of democracy, Baldwin was very much an autocrat within his own organization, maintaining strong control over his own board of directors. Baldwin’s major contribution to the organization was his energy and magnetic personality, which brought into the ACLU individuals who were experts in particular areas of civil liberties. These included such notable figures as future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and the longtime co-general counsels of the ACLU, Arthur Garfield Hays and Morris Ernst. He was also able to secure contributions from wealthy individuals, many of them Quakers who provided critical financial support for the small ACLU. In its first years, the American Civil Liberties Union had only about a thousand members.

In 1919, Baldwin married Madeline Z. Doty, who was also a social reformer. They divorced in 1936, and Baldwin married Evelyn Preston that same year.

In the 1920s, the courts at both the state and federal levels were not sympathetic to civil liberties. Consequently, under Baldwin’s leadership the ACLU gave relatively little emphasis to litigation, especially compared with later decades. Typically, the ACLU would issue a public statement regarding a particular violation of civil liberties. In this respect, Baldwin’s role as speaker and writer was a major part of the ACLU’s activity. Legislatures were also very hostile to civil liberties, and the ACLU devoted relatively little energy to legislation.

Baldwin involved the ACLU in numerous civil liberties issues. He was particularly concerned about the rights of working people and labor unions. During this period, courts routinely granted requests from employers to enjoin union organizers from picketing or in some instances holding meetings to discuss unionization. Baldwin was also very active in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists who had been convicted of murder and whose case became a symbol of the antiradical, anti-immigrant attitudes of the 1920s. The ACLU was particularly active in fighting race discrimination, protesting mob violence against African Americans led by the Ku Klux Klan. Baldwin always arranged to have a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on the ACLU board of directors.

As part of his commitment to the rights of labor, Baldwin led a demonstration in Paterson, New Jersey in 1924, protesting a court injunction prohibiting labor union picketing and meetings. Many other ACLU leaders in this period engaged in direct action in support of civil liberties. Baldwin was arrested and convicted of violating a 1796 state law against rioting that had never been previously used. In 1928, a state appeals court overturned the conviction in one of the few decisions in that decade upholding the right of freedom of assembly.

The most important ACLU case in the 1920s was a challenge to a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Baldwin placed a notice in a Tennessee newspaper indicating the ACLU’s willingness to represent anyone arrested for violating the law. In this manner, the ACLU represented John T. Scopes. The 1925 trial was a national sensation that brought the first important favorable publicity to the ACLU. Baldwin himself did not play a direct role in the trial, however.

Throughout his career, Baldwin was involved with innumerable organizations and causes. The American Civil Liberties Union was only one of four organizations that he established in 1920 alone. One of the most important organizations Baldwin founded in the 1920s was the American Fund for Public Service (AFPS). Charles Garland inherited a large sum of money and wanted to use the money to advance social change. Baldwin convinced him to give the money to the AFPS, which he helped establish in 1922 and which was directed by Baldwin’s friends and associates. Through the 1920s the Fund supported many civil liberties, liberal, and leftwing causes. The fund, for example, supported the early litigation program by the NAACP. The Depression wiped out the fund’s assets after 1929 and it soon became defunct.

Baldwin always had an interest in international human rights, traveled frequently, and corresponded with rights activists in other countries. In 1927, he visited the Soviet Union, and upon his return published Liberty Under the Soviets (1928), a detailed account of the treatment of religious, racial, and ethnic minorities in that country.

Since its founding in 1920, Baldwin and the ACLU primarily had to fight restrictions on the free speech rights of communists and other leftwing activists. In the mid-1930s, following the rise of domestic Nazi groups, they had to confront the issue of whether the First Amendment protected the free speech rights of fascists and other advocates of totalitarianism. After a brief internal debate, Baldwin and the ACLU issued a formal statement supporting the First Amendment rights of all extremist groups, including communists and Nazis.

In the late 1930s, Baldwin’s views of the federal government and civil liberties underwent a major shift. As a result of his World War I experience, he had always been extremely skeptical of virtually all government power. By the mid-1930s, however, he developed a favorable view of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, seeing that some New Deal agencies, such as the new National Labor Relations Board, supported civil liberties. He immediately began to spend more time in Washington, D.C., cultivating sympathetic officials in the Roosevelt administration. This shift was prompted in part by his disillusionment with the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. In the early 1930s, as a result of the Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, Baldwin became more sympathetic to radical leftwing politics. In 1933 and 1934, he made a number of statements expressing sympathy for communism that were later used by ACLU critics against him. This very radical phase was brief, however, and Baldwin soon moved to a more moderate political point of view. Along with many other liberals and leftwing activists, he was shocked by Stalin’s purge of other Soviet leaders in the famous Moscow trials. In the United States, Baldwin also became disgusted with what he saw as manipulative tactics by American communists participating in the Popular Front, a coalition of liberal and leftwing organizations. As a result, Baldwin became a strong anticommunist.

Baldwin’s new anticommunist outlook set the stage for the most controversial episode in his career and in the history of the ACLU. In 1940, the ACLU board of directors adopted a policy under which no supporter of totalitarian organizations could serve in an official capacity in the American Civil Liberties Union. Under the policy, the board then quickly removed Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from its ranks because she was a member of the Communist Party. Many critics accused the ACLU of imposing the very same kind of political test that it had long fought against, and the incident tarnished the reputation of both Baldwin and the ACLU for several decades.

Although there was no widespread suppression of dissent as there had been during the First World War, World War II presented some difficult challenges for Baldwin. He strongly opposed the evacuation and internment of the Japanese-Americans by the federal government, but a majority of the ACLU board of directors limited the terms on which the ACLU would act. The result was a major conflict within the board of directors and between the American Civil Liberties Union national office and the organization’s affiliates in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the end, the ACLU brought the court cases that unsuccessfully challenged the government’s program (Hirabayashi and Korematsu). Baldwin played a major role in organizing the Supreme Court cases, raising necessary funds and arranging for attorneys to write the court briefs and argue the cases before the Supreme Court.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1941 secretly designated Baldwin for detention in case of a national emergency. Although his political views had become more moderate, he was still regarded as a dangerous radical by the FBI. The FBI’s secret emergency detention program did not become known until the 1970s, when the Watergate scandal exposed a number of abuses of power by federal agencies. The FBI maintained extensive surveillance of Baldwin over the years. Major portions of Baldwin’s FBI file were released in the 1980s and were deposited with the Baldwin and ACLU archives at Princeton University.

In one of the most curious episodes in his career, Baldwin was invited to Japan in 1947 to advise General Douglas MacArthur on developing a constitution for postwar Japan. Somewhat surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union leader and the very conservative general established a close rapport.

Baldwin’s role during the Cold War has been a subject of considerable controversy. Because of the removal of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from the ACLU board in 1940, critics accused Baldwin and the ACLU of not opposing Cold War–era restrictions on freedom of speech and association with sufficient vigor. Baldwin had formed a personal relationship with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover when the latter was first appointed in 1924, and he remained somewhat uncritical of the Bureau in the years that followed. And while Baldwin opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) since it was created in 1938, some other ACLU leaders had close and private relations with the committee. Despite the criticisms, however, both Baldwin and the ACLU strongly opposed most Cold War restrictions on civil liberties, including loyalty oaths, prosecutions under the 1940 Smith Act, and blacklisting in the entertainment industry.

In 1950, the ACLU board of directors decided to remove Baldwin as director, and he was given a vague ‘‘ambassadorial’’ position focusing on international issues. The decision to remove him was prompted by the feeling that Baldwin had not kept up with changing times. Always an autocrat who sought to maintain strong control of the organization, Baldwin had opposed any effort to increase the American Civil Liberties Union’s membership or to create a network of affiliates across the country. In 1950, there were about 10,000 members and four affiliates with staff members. His successor embarked on a membership and affiliate development campaign that proved to be enormously successful. This development vindicated the decision of the ACLU board in removing Baldwin as director.

After being removed as executive director, Baldwin continued to work on human rights issues for another thirty-one years, devoting most of his energies to international issues and working through the International League for the Rights of Man. In this effort, he was as tireless as he had been previously. He traveled extensively around the world, giving speeches and writing articles.

Baldwin’s legacy for civil liberties is enormous. Without his energy and devotion to the organization, the ACLU probably would not have survived. Nor was there any other person who tirelessly advocated the cause of free speech and other rights during the 1920s and 1930s. The history of civil liberties in the United States would have been very different without the efforts of Roger Baldwin. President Jimmy Carter awarded Baldwin the Medal of Liberty in January 1981. Roger Baldwin died on August 26, 1981.

SAMUEL WALKER

References and Further Reading

  • Baldwin, Roger N. Liberty Under the Soviets. New York: Vanguard Press, 1928. 
  • Cottrell, Robert C. Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 
  • Lamson, Peggy. Roger Baldwin, Founder of the American Civil Liberties Union: A Portrait. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976. 
  • Walker, Samuel. In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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