When the American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920, government censorship was routine, racial segregation was legal, the founding of the country’s first gay rights group was still several years away, and the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, had not yet been fully ratified. In the foreword to “Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases,” David Cole, the ACLU’s national legal director, observes that in the United States, “While the process has been far from linear, rights have generally expanded, protecting more and more previously unprotected groups, recognizing as discrimination conduct once taken for granted, insisting on fair procedures where previously few rules applied, and expanding the freedoms of free speech and association, the core rights of a democracy.”
Editors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are among those who worry that despite this extraordinary progress, we are backsliding. “Things, we feel, have been getting worse,” they write. “Liberty and equality are everywhere under attack.” In response to their concern, and to commemorate the organization’s centennial, Chabon and Waldman, who are married, have enlisted 40 fellow writers to offer their takes on significant legal cases that the ACLU either argued or supported through an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief.
Some of the featured cases (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Gideon v. Wainwright, Roe v. Wade) are well known; others are relatively obscure. Some of the essays are cerebral and analytical; others are meditative and achingly personal. All of the entries are compelling, and the overall strength of the collection – never a given in anthologies with dozens of contributors – is a credit to the A-list roster that Chabon and Waldman have gathered. Contributors include Meg Wolitzer, Elizabeth Strout, Jonathan Lethem, Lauren Groff, Jennifer Egan, Michael Cunningham, Neil Gaiman, Jesmyn Ward, Marlon James, George Saunders, Anthony Doerr, and many others.
One of the most moving entries comes from “Homegoing” author Yaa Gyasi, who reflects on the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, the watershed 1954 decision that declared segregated schools to be in violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Gyasi recalls growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, artfully juxtaposing the civil rights movement with the birth of America’s spaceflight program. “If one day,” she concludes, “Americans are able to look at the work of desegregation and racial justice with as much urgency as we once looked upon the race to the moon, then perhaps the work that Brown v. Board of Education began could finally be seen as a challenge we are willing to accept, a challenge we are unwilling to postpone.”
The ACLU takes a near-absolutist view of free speech, as it has shown over the years by famously defending the rights of Nazis and white supremacists to march. That commitment extends to the organization’s view of political donations as a form of speech. Best-selling author Scott Turow is a longtime ACLU supporter, but in his entry, the only one in the collection to criticize rather than celebrate the organization, he assails the group for its position on campaign finance regulation.
Turow’s piece focuses on Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 case that declared limits on campaign spending unconstitutional, a ruling with which the ACLU was in agreement. He connects that case with one of its descendants, the highly controversial 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, which found that restricting political donations from corporations also violated the First Amendment. In the author’s view, “Constitutionalizing unlimited political spending was a disaster in principle and has been almost apocalyptic in its effect.”
One of the more forgotten cases, Edwards v. California, is tackled by novelist Ann Patchett. In 1937, in the wake of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, California made it illegal to knowingly transport an indigent person into the state. The ACLU secured a victory for Fred Edwards, who was given a suspended jail sentence of six months after driving to Texas and returning with his unemployed brother-in-law. Patchett notes both the relevance of the strange and short-lived law to our own fraught times and the abiding fragility of our rights. “Circumstances can change in the time it takes the stock market to crash and the heartlands to dry up and blow away,” she muses. Her stirring conclusion could serve as an epigraph for this powerful, inspiring collection: “We must work to create a society with liberty and justice for all. We will fail and fail and fail at this goal. Our failure is the history of the world. But our humanity is in the fact that we never cease to try.”