My first involvement with the ACLU was as a member and donor - a donor of time, not money. My husband and I were students at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. There, we met Mort Gitelman, a law professor and cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Arkansas. He moved there to teach law and was instrumental in getting us involved and driving home the importance of the ACLU of Arkansas's mission.
Judith Rogers was president at that time, and she and the rest of the board hired me as executive director. I was excited to do something so meaningful with my time.
Back then we didn’t work on much legislation, but women’s rights have always been a priority for the ACLU and we did quite a bit of work on the Equal Rights Amendment, a fight that continues to this day.
We also worked to improve conditions in county jails and state prisons, as there was so much cruel and unusual punishment occurring. We pushed hard for the legislature to attempt reforms and address the inhumane and brutal conditions incarcerated people were facing. I’m very proud that the ACLU of Arkansas has continued to fight to defend the rights of people in our prison system and to abolish the death penalty, which is a stain on our entire system of justice.
Students rights is another arena where the ACLU of Arkansas has been incredibly active through the years. High schools and colleges are ground zero for students working out how the next generation will apply the ideals of democracy. With students, we dealt with free speech issues, freedom of the press in terms of the school newspapers, church and state issues, such as praying in school, and unlawful searches. These kinds of cases don't make the newspaper, but this work is vital to the progress the ACLU makes.
The Arkansas affiliate has always been on the frontlines of the fight to defend constitutional rights in Arkansas – without regard to partisanship. The ACLU of Arkansas is often a lone voice in the wilderness for school issues, freedom of information, freedom of speech, employment issues, and so many things that come up when local authorities refuse to let people exercise their rights.
Thankfully, I see the future of the ACLU of Arkansas as bright. When I was the executive director, I was part-time with a part-time secretary. Having a lawyer on staff is a huge step forward, and former executive director Rita Sklar did a fantastic job in strengthening and growing the affiliate through year 26-year tenure. In the beginning, we had more focus on the larger cities and towns, and now we are a more statewide organization. Although we might not be here at all without Mort, Rita made a huge difference. Her work on LGBTQ rights and minority religions was crucial, and her leadership made a tremendous difference for countless Arkansans.
As long as there are people with rights that could be infringed, there will be a need for the ACLU. It's a scary time when you think about the rise in hate crimes, and the inequalities in the criminal justice system disproportionately affecting black people.
Every time the current administration does something that is a clear violation of civil rights, I send a check to the ACLU. It's beginning to feel like tithing! We have to keep keeping on, without compromise.