I just wrote a check to renew my ACLU membership after a lapse of several years. I had to let it go because I had not seen that I was getting much for my money. I changed my mind last week after the American Civil Liberties Union opened an office in downtown Charleston.
For at least a decade, the South Carolina affiliate of the ACLU had been moribund and ineffective. Since April, it has been dead. That is when the national organization took the unprecedented action of putting the S.C. affiliate into receivership against the protests of its statewide officers. Let me say here that I know some of those leaders and I can understand why they were taken off the job. What did surprise me was the report in the New York Times that one of its recent executive directors embezzled money from the state organization.
It was clearly time for a fresh start in S.C. and the ACLU got one last Wednesday when Graham Boyd opened a new office at 12 East Bay St.
Boyd, a Greenville native and human rights activist, made his presence known in the Charleston area in 2003, as the lead attorney representing Stratford High School students and parents after police stormed into that school with guns drawn, looking for drugs.
Getting the ACLU restarted in S.C. will not be easy. The venerable civil rights organization is despised and distrusted throughout the South, probably nowhere more than here. After all, it has long opposed the death penalty, school prayer, and the display of government-sponsored religious symbols on public property.
It was the ACLU that dispatched Clarence Darrow to defend John T. Scopes in the famous Tennessee "Monkey Trial," testing that state's anti-evolution laws. It was the ACLU, in 1954, that filed an amicus brief in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which led to racial desegregation in public schools.
In 1967, the ACLU successfully argued against state bans on interracial marriage and, in 1973, became the first major national organization to call for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, citing the Nixon administration's violations of civil liberties. That same year, the ACLU was involved in the cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, in which the Supreme Court held that women seeking abortions had a constitutional right of privacy.
In more recent years, the ACLU has successfully challenged Arkansas' creationism statute, which required the teaching of biblical creation as a scientific alternative to evolution. The ACLU has fought against the USA Patriot Act and Megan's Law, which requires the posting of the names of sex offenders. It calls the law "misguided political posturing that [would] do nothing to reduce sex crimes." In 2006 the organization brought suit in federal district court, challenging government spying in the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program. The court ruled that the law was unconstitutional and ordered it ended immediately.
Though the ACLU famously defended Neo-Nazis' right to march through Skokie, Illinois, and Rush Limbaugh's right to privacy in his 2004 drug trial, it is generally regarded by conservatives as a "liberal" organization. Its defense of the rights of the accused and convicted is viewed as just plain wrong-headed in this hang-'em-high, law-and-order state.
In the 1988 presidential campaign, Republican George H.W. Bush noted that Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis had described himself as a "card-carrying member of the ACLU" and used that as evidence that Dukakis was "a strong, passionate liberal" and "out of the mainstream." It helped Bush carry the South and win the election.
This is the reputation that Graham Boyd and his organization will have to overcome if they are to succeed in this deeply red state. Of course, the ACLU has never been a partisan organization, as Mayor Joe Riley noted in brief remarks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony formally opening the office. Riley spoke to a small but enthusiastic group of community leaders and activists at the Old Exchange Building, in the very room in which the S.C. legislature ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1788.
Boyd used the occasion to announce that he and his staff will spend the next 10 weeks traveling to 12 cities around the state, meeting with citizens and learning what they think should be the organization's initial priorities. He also announced the creation of a web-based survey at www.aclusouthcarolina.org, designed to obtain public input on statewide priorities.
At the top of Boyd's list will be privacy — including the Real ID Act, medical privacy, and the use of DNA to obtain private, personal information — and voting rights. In the meantime, Boyd is busy hiring a staff attorney, community organizer, executive director, and administrative coordinator. They better be smart, because they have a lot of work to do in this state.
Welcome back to South Carolina, ACLU!