Baldwin, Roger Nash

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Baldwin, Roger Nash

Roger Nash Baldwin spent his life crusading for Civil Rights and liberties and was one of the principal founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Baldwin was born January 21, 1884, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, into a comfortably well-to-do Boston Brahmin family. His ancestral roots reached back to what he once referred to as "the inescapable Mayflower." His father, Frank Fenno Baldwin, was a conservative businessman. His mother, Lucy Cushing Nash, instilled in her children a love of art, literature, and music. Baldwin's parents raised their six children with all the privileges and advantages their wealth could provide, but they also emphasized service to others. The family attended the Unitarian Church, where an emphasis on helping others sowed in Baldwin the seeds of a social work career.

Baldwin was an unconventional boy who was not interested in competitive endeavors and shared his mother's interest in literature and art. He was a nonconformist who was influenced by Henry David Thoreau's philosophy of individualism and self-reliance. Although his parents were conservative, the young Baldwin was introduced to many progressive leaders at the home of his uncle and aunt, William Baldwin and Ruth Standish Bowles Baldwin. His uncle was president of the Long Island Railroad, director of the National Child Labor Committee, and a trustee of Tuskegee Institute. He also worked to end prostitution. His aunt supported the fledgling labor movement and was a founder of the National Urban League, a trustee of Smith College, and a member of the Socialist party. The couple often entertained the social reformers of the day, and Baldwin was influenced by his exposure to their somewhat radical ideas.

Baldwin was educated at Harvard, earning both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree there. In 1906, he left the East and headed for St. Louis to be a social worker. He directed a social settlement house for poor people and taught the first sociology courses offered at Washington University, in St. Louis. He became the chief Probation officer of the St. Louis Juvenile Court in 1908. While in that position, he and Bernard Flexner coauthored the first textbook on the juvenile courts. Their book, Juvenile Courts and Probation, set out professional standards for juvenile practice and was the standard text in the field until the 1960s. In 1910, Baldwin became the secretary of the St. Louis Civic League, an urban reform agency supporting civic causes.

While working in St. Louis, Baldwin met and became friends with the anarchist Emma Goldman. His first defense of free speech came in 1912 when he spoke in support of margaret sanger, an early crusader for Birth Control and reproductive rights, whose lecture was shut down by the police. Through the social work profession he was attracted to the reform movement and the labor movement. He organized the Division on Industrial and Economic Problems at the 1916 meeting of the National Conference of Social Work, and wrote a report calling for cooperative production and distribution systems to replace competitive labor systems.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Baldwin organized the American Union against Militarism (AUAM), which was later replaced by the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB). In its early days, the AUAM was concerned with defending those who refused to be drafted to serve in the war. Baldwin was among the conscientious objectors opposed to the draft, and he was sentenced to a year in jail for his refusal to register. In a speech to the court before he was sentenced, he explained that his reason for opposing the draft was his "uncompromising opposition to the principle of Conscription of life by the state for any purpose whatever, in time of war or peace."

After his release from prison, Baldwin worked as a common laborer around the Midwest and joined the radical International Workers of the World (IWW) union. He returned to New York in 1920 to help reorganize and reconstitute the NCLB with two conservative lawyers, Albert DeSilver and Walter Nelles, who shared his passion for championing the rights of the oppressed. Baldwin agreed to head the new organization, named the American Civil Liberties Union, and carry out its unique mission to impartially defend the civil liberties of all U.S. citizens, regardless of their affiliation or activities. Baldwin was launched in what would be a long and vigorous struggle to create "a society with a minimum of compulsion, a maximum of individual freedom and of voluntary association, and the Abolition of exploitation and poverty."

"[Our goal is] a society with a minimum of compulsion, a maximum of individual freedom and of voluntary association, and the abolition of exploitation and poverty."
—Roger Nash Baldwin

Perhaps it was inevitable that Baldwin would become associated with leftist causes, since the people most in need of free speech protection during the 1920s and 1930s were often political liberals and radicals. He once told an interviewer that during this time he was heavily influenced by the Marxist theory that "the real center in society was the organized underdog in the trade unions," which he believed was true although only part of the whole picture.

Baldwin came to realize that the civil liberties of right-wing groups were just as likely to be infringed as those of left-wingers. Bewildered and frustrated by liberal groups who opposed the ACLU's support of free speech rights for the American Nazi party or the Ku Klux Klan, Baldwin said, "[T]hese people can be just as great tyrants as the other side … helping them get freedom didn't help the cause of freedom." Referring to the wide variety of causes the ACLU defended over the years, Baldwin said, "I always felt from the beginning that you had to defend people you disliked and feared as well as those you admired." Although not a member of any party, he supported the causes of Communists, Socialists, and other leftist organizations during the 1920s and 1930s. However, in 1940, when he began to realize that the Communist label was being used by totalitarian governments, he wrote a resolution that resulted in the removal of all the Communist members of the ACLU board. Ironically, Baldwin's resolution became the model for government loyalty oaths, which the ACLU later attacked in court.

Although he was a card-carrying Wobbly, as members of the IWW were called, Baldwin could not be categorized as liberal or conservative. He was active in the National Audubon Society, the American Political Science Association, and a number of other organizations on both ends of the political spectrum. The only label Baldwin accepted for himself was that of reformer: "I am dead certain that human progress depends on those heretics, rebels and dreamers who have been my kin in spirit and whose 'holy discontent' has challenged established authority and created the expanding visions mankind may yet realize."

During the years of Baldwin's leadership, the ACLU, using volunteer lawyers, was involved in a wide variety of civil liberties cases, especially involving free speech and assembly. One concerned a 1925 Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools. The ACLU defended a science teacher, John Thomas Scopes, charged with violating the law (Scopes v. State, 152 Tenn. 424, 278 S.W. 57 [1925]; 154 Tenn. 105, 289 S.W. 363 [1927]). William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and well-known fundamentalist, helped the state attorney general prosecute the case, and the notorious clarence darrow, a self-proclaimed atheist, defended Scopes. The trial ended with Scopes being convicted, although the verdict was later overturned because of a judicial error. The trial brought the issue of Academic Freedom to the public's attention and probably helped stunt the growth of the antievolution movement.

The ACLU was involved in the Sacco-Vanzetti murder case, in which it was widely believed that the two defendants, Nicolo Sacco and bartolomeo vanzetti, were scapegoated because they were Italian anarchists and draft resisters. Baldwin led the ACLU into the anticensorship arena in the fight to lift the importation ban on such books as James Joyce's Ulysses. In 1938, the ACLU obtained an Injunction against Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City, ordering him to cease antiunion activities. ACLU lawyers defended the free expression and free press rights of the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose anti-Catholic rhetoric and aggressive canvassing tactics came under attack. They successfully argued that Henry Ford had a First Amendment right to express his antiunion views as long as he did not threaten workers. Possibly the most controversial cases accepted by the ACLU were those that defended the free speech rights of unpopular groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the German-American Bund, and the American Nazi party.

During World War II, Baldwin and the ACLU opposed the movement of Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast to relocation camps. After the war, he helped General Douglas MacArthur set up a civil liberties policy for the occupation forces in Japan. He also consulted on civil liberties issues in the U.S. zone of occupied Germany.

Baldwin, always a nonconformist, lived an ascetic lifestyle, wearing the same ill-fitting suit for years at a time and accepting a subsistence salary from the ACLU. He was married for fifteen years to Madeleine Z. Doty, a reformist lawyer. They divorced in 1934, and in 1936 he married another reformer, Evelyn Preston, whose two sons he adopted. The couple had one child, Helen Baldwin Mannoni.

Baldwin retired as head of the ACLU in 1950, but he never retired from the causes to which he was committed. He continued working until the day he died, August 26, 1981, at age ninety-seven. A few months before his death, President jimmy carter awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian tribute. Reflecting on that honor, Baldwin expressed the philosophy he had lived by all his life: "Never yield your courage—your courage to live, your courage to fight, to resist, to develop your own lives, to be free." It is clear that Baldwin never yielded his courage, and that he remained to the end a dauntless crusader for freedom and liberty for all U.S. citizens.

Further readings

Lamson, Peggy. 1976. Roger Baldwin: Founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Walker, Samuel. 1990. In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Cross-references

Communism; First Amendment; Freedom of Speech; Japanese American Evacuation Cases; Sacco and Vanzetti; Scopes Monkey Trial.

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