In 2019, the ACLU of Arkansas celebrates its 50th year in service to Arkansas citizens. In 50 years, there are stories you’ve heard on the news, and then there are the stories of the men and women who have been worked behind the scenes to fight for the rights of every Arkansan. Some of them have been involved since the beginning, and others joined the fight later. As we dive into our 50th year, we are sharing some of the stories of the leaders and fighters who have held the US Constitution and the people it protects close.
In 1969, I was a newspaperman by profession. As a journalist, I couldn’t be a member or supporter of organizations like the ACLU because I couldn’t be part of anything I’d be writing about. So while I was sympathetic to the ACLU and familiar with how it was founded, I couldn’t be actively involved. But I did know that it was founded in large part because of Little Rock businessman, Fred Darragh.
Darragh had been a pilot in World War II and was one of the few businessmen who disagreed with Governor Faubus, who at the time was trying to stymie integration. In 1957 and 1958 the legislature had passed a slew of segregation bills, and Darragh was the first person to say that we needed an ACLU in Arkansas to challenge them.
Act 10 of 1958 was one of the worst, and it required teachers, colleges, and universities to sign a contract that they wouldn’t support organizations that were “subversive.” Unsurprisingly, the ACLU and the NAACP were both on the list of so-called subversive organizations. Act 10 was ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1960, in one of the first major lawsuits that helped pave the way for the ACLU of Arkansas.
A lawyer named Edwin Dunaway filed a lawsuit challenging Act 10, and he took it all the way to the U.S. Supreme court, which in 1960 struck it down as a violation of the First Amendment. This was one of the first major lawsuits that helped pave the way for the ACLU of Arkansas. Later in the early 1990s, Dunaway went on to receive a civil libertarian award for his efforts in 1958 and beyond.
In 1965, another famous lawsuit further fueled the fire for an ACLU of Arkansas. The case was Epperson v. Arkansas, and challenged a law that criminalized teaching evolution.
Filed on behalf of Susan Epperson, a math teacher at Central High, the lawsuit was tried in circuit court and the circuit judge ruled it unconstitutional, but the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the statute 6-1, although the court issued no opinion aside from a brief unsigned order that the law fell within the state’s rights to dictate classroom textbooks. The case wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the circuit judge’s decision and unanimously overruled the state Supreme Court. It said the evolution law violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
All of this led Fred to say that we must have an ACLU here in Arkansas. There was a meeting at his house to discuss forming an Arkansas affiliate, which was officially incorporated on January 12, 1969.
After the Gazette closed in October of 1991, I continued to do a little writing, but I no longer had any obligation to neutrality, and I was proud to be recognized Civil Libertarian of the Year by the ACLU in 1991. Then I served as board president for about six years.
Serving on the ACLU board and the Fred Darragh Foundation board have been extremely worthwhile endeavors. After my service on the ACLU board, I’ve remained a dedicated supporter and a member.
We always had a good board, and former executive director Rita Sklar was a tremendous, committed and tough leader. And of course, the Godfather of the ACLU of Arkansas, John Burnett, has been the guiding force all these years. Without him, the organization wouldn’t have been nearly as successful.
After 50 years in Arkansas, the need for the ACLU is increasing rather than diminishing. With our Bill of Rights increasingly in peril, support for the ACLU has never been more important than it is now, so I encourage anyone concerned with their rights and the rights of others to get engaged and stay engaged.
While Mr. Darragh would have been incredibly pleased to see the progress that’s continued in Arkansas, if he were here he would still be leading the fight to protect individual rights.