Resignation from American Civil Liberties Union Board

Bill Sr. From an  Open letter to Rev. John Haynes Holmes, Chairman, February 1946

When I was re-elected to the Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union three years ago I was asked, as a condition of membership to subscribe to the resolution of February 6, 1940, which established a test of opinion on political and economic questions, including opinion of the Soviet Union, I declined.

In March, 1940, a group of outstanding liberals issued an open letter in which they stated that “the phrasing of the purge resolution is so wide as to make the Civil Liberties Union seem a fellow-traveller of the Dies Committee.” Yet within a brief time a number of Board members were either purged for their opinions or felt compelled to resign. The Union has over this period functioned effectively in many cases. But the bad outweighs the good in my judgment. There are over 6,500 persons paying dues to the A.C.L.U. 1  Nevertheless efforts made by members of the National Committee to give these dues-payers some voice in the affairs of the organization have been of no avail. The majority (of the board) becomes self-righteous in denouncing others for ‘obvious anti-democratic objectives and practices’ (Feb. 5 resolution) and names two they consider so to be: the Soviet Union and the Communist Party.

Bill Jr.  The board of the Union accepted Dad’s resignation. In doing so, its letter said in part:

‘Mr. Spofford … is not in favor of the Bill of Rights for all-comers without distinction. He favors it only for what he regards is his side. The A.C.L.U. defends the rights of all without distinction –trade unions, free speech for employers, democracy for rank and file union members, and the civil rights of non-union members as well. Those are the clear obligations of the Bill of Rights. We would defend equally the rights of the Rev. Wm. B. Spofford and the Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith. Mr. Spofford does not go along with that concept. His charge that the Union members ‘have no voice in its affairs’ has no merit. The charge that the Union is ‘anti-Soviet’ is equally without foundation. The Union takes no position on foreign government. It is opposed to the principle of dictatorship anywhere and does not regard the supporters of dictatorship as suitable defenders of the Bill of Rights.’

Previously, the Rev. Stephen Fritchman of the CHRISTIAN REGISTER had run an editorial on civil liberties.  ACLU Chairman Holmes, who was a leading Unitarian pastor, responded:

It is interesting to find on a page of THE CHRISTIAN REGISTER glorified by the names of Joseph Priestley and Theodore Parker, immortal champions and martyrs of liberty, an editorial attacking the full enjoyment of civil liberties in this country. You speak contemptuously of ‘an abstract freedom of speech’, as though there were ever any freedom not related to the rights and dignities of man. The right of a man, for example, to speak the most hated doctrine — a right that, as Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes specifically declared, is the real test of freedom. The Gerald L.K. Smith episode in Los Angeles was very simple. Mr. Smith was denied his constitutional right of free speech on the ground that he would set forth ideas subversive of this country’s security and welfare.

This, of course, was pure fascism, i.e. the suppression of all minority opinion, and was opposed as such by the Civil Liberties Union. I have no more use for Mr. Smith than you do, but the issue in this case was clear. And it is an alarming issue! Who, for example, is to be the judge in this business of suppressing the free expression of ideas? On the basis of the principle you advocate, there are millions of persons in America who would deny the right of free speech to Unitarians. Read Dr. Earl Morse Wilbur’s recent HISTORY OF UNITARIANISM, and you will find that for centuries our forefathers were denied this right for the same reason urged in Los Angeles against Mr. Smith. If your editorial protest is heeded, then not Gerald L.K. Smith but your own Communist friends and fellow travellers will be silenced by the mob action of those who regard ‘Reds’ as people dangerous to American institutions. No, there can be no freedom of speech for any of us unless there is freedom of speech for all of us. Not one of us is safe if another one of us is silenced. You will find this truth excellently stated on page 32 of your current issue of the REGISTER in Mr. Darling’s article where he says: ‘Freedom isn’t one of those things that you and I can have unless everyone has it…Everybody has to have freedom or else nobody has it.

In Los Angeles, the Civil Liberties Union advocated the simple right of Mr. Smith to speak, and of the public to hear him if it so desired, which is the right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The Union’s appeal was to the U.S. Constitution, which would seem to be a good American proceeding. You say you ‘find it hard to believe there are Unitarians’ who would take part in such a proceeding. May I say that I find it ‘hard to believe’ there are Unitarians who would not take part in such a proceeding. If you are one, then I am ashamed of Unitarianism to the extent of just this one.”

Dr. Fritchman extended the CHRISTIAN REGISTER etter column rules, which called for no more than 200 words per letter, for Mr. Holmes.  Dad’s reply, just below, was shorter. He was still fuming from the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn episode and then felt that the ACLU was supporting native Fascists such as G.L.K. Smith. Herewith his letter:

The position taken in your editorial ‘WHAT OF CIVIL LIBERTIES?’ is sound, I am sure. It is because I share the point of view you so well express that I was compelled by my own reasoning to resign recently from the Board of Directors of the ACLU.  Fighting for an abstraction has, as a matter of fact, made the ACLU on occasion the ally of not only Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith but other American fascists. I am fully aware that the reply can be given that if civil liberties are denied fascists they will also be denied progressives. Nevertheless, I for one take that chance with confidence that in the long run the people of this world will win the fight against the oppressors and will give an economic foundation to society without which genuine civil liberties are impossible. It is my considered opinion that the world would have been spared a great deal of grief if the Republican government of Spain had denied ‘freedom’ to Franco and his conspirators. Likewise I think the Soviet government was correct in denying ‘civil liberties’ to fifth columnists in the Ukraine as a a prelude to the Nazi attack. You do well in warning your readers that they should not, in the name of civil liberties, ‘protest and comfort the forerunners of an American Hitler here.

The letter was signed as Editor of THE WITNESS (Episcopalian).

Bill Jr:

The “outstanding liberals” mentioned in Dad’s resignation letter  included, in addition to Dad, Mary van Kleeck, Corliss Lamont, Abe Isserman and others.. The issue then was about the continued membership on the board of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a communist. She was ‘ousted’ and, decades later and posthumously, the A.C.L.U. board reinstated her, admitting that they had betrayed their principles. Thus, there was vindication of the liberal position although, historically, it was much too late.

Following Dad’s death, I contacted the elderly Roger Baldwin, long-time secretary of the A.C.L.U.  Baldwin sent a most warm letter raising Dad’s service in and through the A.C.L.U. and acknowledging that, although they sometimes disagreed on issues and procedures, they were colleagues in a struggle to defend democracy’s values. The building up of the Cold War both nationally and internationally put extraordinary stress on liberals and radicals which, of course, climaxed with the McCarthy-era.

  1. Tim: According to my local affiliate, current ACLU membership in late 2017 is 1.6 million.