History

The history of the ACLU of Northern California tells the story of the major struggles to protect and expand civil liberties in our state.

The ACLU of Northern California has been the leading champion of civil liberties in our state since our founding in 1934. As changing times bring new challenges, we have expanded our issue areas and strategies. We added a reproductive justice policy director, launched a technology project for the digital age, and opened a Fresno office to engage communities in the Central Valley. But our commitment does not change or waver: fairness, equality, and justice for all people.

Our principles haven’t always made us popular. The ACLU-NC was alone in standing with Fred Korematsu and against the forced detention of Japanese-Americans during WWII, in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. We dared to oppose obscenity laws in the prim 1950s, defending Lawrence Ferlinghetti for selling Howl, the groundbreaking book of poetry, in his San Francisco City Lights bookstore. In the years after 9/11, the ACLU pushed back on a wave of bigotry and fear mongering to protect the civil rights of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern and South Asian decent. In recent years, as discrimination has shifted to target Latinos and others perceived as “foreign,” the ACLU has stamped out anti-immigrant laws around the country and challenged unlawful policing in immigrant communities in California.

We may be best known for litigation, but through our history the ACLU-NC has been powered by the passion of our activists. The organization was forged through the courage of trade workers and labor organizers in the 1930s. We aided the growing civil rights movements of the 1960s, providing legal protection to campaigns by African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, as well as anti-war protestors and LGBT activists. Over the decades, battles have been fought and won by ACLU activists in fifteen chapters across Northern California and student groups on California’s university campuses, from the activists who launched the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964 to the UC Davis students who endured pepper spray while exercising their free speech rights in 2011.

The ACLU of Northern California has expanded freedom and justice in California for more than 75 years. Now new generations of Californians – taking action in the streets and online – will shape our course and our impact in the next century.