On February 21st, 1969 two civil rights activists, Joe and Barbara Neal, were arrested for distributing information to students at Henderson State University. Joe and Barbara were organizers with the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC), an organization of progressive student activists that promoted racial equality and civil rights.
The authorities claimed they had violated state law prohibiting any speech that causes a “breach of the peace” on school property.
It became the ACLU of Arkansas’ very first case. We didn’t even have an office back then – but we went all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court to challenge their convictions and strike down the law that violated their First Amendment rights.
We haven’t stopped fighting since.
Fifty years after our original board members – including, Morton Gitelman, Betty Siegel, and Otto “Bud” Zinke – incorporated the ACLU of Arkansas, we are still battling for a more just, free and equal America.
In 1969, gay people were not allowed to serve in the military, marry or adopt children and LGBTQ relationships were illegal. There were little to no protections for incarcerated people, transgender people, or those with disabilities. Here in Arkansas and in many states, abortion was illegal.
At that time, Arkansas was just beginning to shake off the vestiges of racial segregation and Jim Crow. Discrimination against women remained widespread, as the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet affirmed that the Constitution’s Equal Protection guarantee extended to women.
Well into the 1980s, Arkansas condoned the teaching of creationism in schools – until an ACLU of Arkansas lawsuit struck that law down.
Over the last 50 years, we’ve stood up to oppose abortion bans and protect the rights of students, journalists and people with disabilities. We fought back against unconstitutional police practices and shut down debtors’ prisons. We’ve safeguarded the freedom of speech and battled to protect the right to vote. And we’ve fought arm-in-arm to protect religious liberty, dismantle systemic racism and defend immigrant communities.
We’ve come a long way over the last half century – but the march for justice and equality is far from finished.
We have a criminal justice system that perpetuates racial oppression and devastates Black and brown communities. Arkansas legislators are constantly trying to turn back the clock on reproductive rights with cruel and unconstitutional abortion bans. And immigrant communities are being torn apart and terrorized by the Trump administration’s mass deportation agenda
Fifty years of freedom fighting have taught us that the fundamental rights we hold dear cannot defend themselves. It takes all of us – marching, organizing, agitating and advocating on their behalf.
Now is the time to recommit to realizing the full promise of America: a just and inclusive society where everyone belongs and everyone is free.