Tuesday, April 11, 2017

National Library Week: The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California

Fred Korematsu letter: Salt Lake City, to Ernest Besig, American Civil Liberties of Northern California records, MS 3580, California Historical Society

As a historian based in New Zealand interested in the history of radicalism and repression in California, I have found the records of the American Civil Liberties Union held at the California Historical Society of immense value. Since San Francisco was a major site of confrontation in the mid- to late 20th century and the ACLU was heavily involved in defending minorities, labor unions, immigrants, and radicals being persecuted and prosecuted, the ACLU-NC collection gives important insights into efforts to resist the power of the state, major interest groups, and federal government.  It provides important evidence about the effects of repressive legislation including the state law against criminal syndicalism and federal legislation, such as the Alien Registration Act (Smith Act). It reveals the efforts to civil libertarians, including local lawyers based in San Francisco and Oakland,  to defend radicals, union officials, union organizers, and groups deemed to be subversive, which ultimately resulted in some important Supreme Court decisions such as Yates vs. the United States (1957).

The records are also extremely useful for revealing conflicts between the ACLU’s Board of Directors and the Northern California branch over such vexed questions as to whether members of the Communist Party could serve on the Board and deserved the protection of the Bill of Rights. It becomes possible to trace the ACLU’s internal upheaval  in 1940 and again in the early 1950s over these questions in which the ACLU of Northern California was a stronger supporter civil liberties than the national organization. Such insights make the ACLU collection at the California Historical Society of great significance for investigating the conflict between civil liberties and domestic security, an issue just as relevant in the current climate as it during important periods in the past.  

As a visitor from a New Zealand university, I was also impressed by the professionalism and the supportive environment provided by the archival staff at the California Historical Society. Communications prior to my visit were done extremely well and the records were ready for me when I arrived.  The positive attitude and expertise made the task of researching both enjoyable and productive. For someone who usually has too little time to spend during a research trip, the quality of the staff and their interest in helping the researcher was much appreciated.

Dolores Janiewski,
Associate Professor
School of History, Philosophy, Political Science & International Relations
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
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