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The Intertwined History — And Future — Of St. Louis And The 100-Year-Old ACLU

Fitzpatrick political cartoon from 1946 Post-Dispatch
Washington University Libraries

With protests against police brutality and attention to systemic racism sweeping the nation in 2020, there’s renewed urgency surrounding the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization is also celebrating 100 years of existence, both at the national level and in Missouri — and a curator at Washington University Libraries has recently dug deep into records of that century’s worth of history.

As Miranda Rectenwald and a handful of student assistants have noticed during their research over the past three years, the ACLU’s beginnings intersect with St. Louis history in significant ways. At the center of that intersection is the late Roger Baldwin, one of the key founders of the national ACLU organization.

Baldwin was a Boston native, but he moved in the early 20th century to St. Louis as Washington University’s first teacher of sociology. During formative years in the Gateway City, his encounters with activism and reform efforts helped paved the way for what he would go on to do upon leaving St. Louis in 1917 for New York City.

Baldwin’s story and many others receive fresh attention in the digital exhibit that the library, in partnership with the ACLU of Missouri, has compiled and made freely accessible online.

In one of her latest blog posts connected to the exhibit, Rectenwald reflected on some of the sobering connections between cases of decades ago and some of those the ACLU is still focused on today.

ACLU fliers from the 1940s
Credit Washington University Libraries
ACLU fliers from the 1940s, part of Washington University's exhibit about the first 100 years of the organization, carry messages such as "We Must Not Be Afraid of Change" and "The Real Danger - Fear of Ideas."

“Once again, as I write about the ACLU of Missouri’s history of trying to stop police violence,” she wrote, “I do so as I listen to news stories of protesters met with tear gas and rubber bullets [and] updates scroll by on my newsfeed about a black man, already in handcuffs, murdered by a [white] police officer. And I am reminded that while these events of 2020 are horrific, they were equally horrific in 1946, and 1967, and in all the other years past.”

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked about the past and present of the ACLU with Rectenwald and Luz María Henríquez, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri.

Luz Maria Henriquez, Miranda Rectenwald
Credit ACLU of Missouri & St. Louis Public Radio
Luz María Henríquez (at left), executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, and Miranda Rectenwald, curator of local history at Washington University Libraries, will join Wednesday's show.

Henríquez, who took the reins of the chapter earlier this year, also spoke to where she sees the organization heading in the months and years ahead.

Rectenwald touched on Washington University Libraries’ virtual Anniversaries of Independence event, which will include an abridged reading of the speech “The Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States” and a panel discussion featuring Elizabeth Katz, associate professor of law, alongside Rectenwald on Thursday afternoon.

Related Event
What: Anniversaries of Independence
When: 1 p.m. Thursday, July 2
Where: Online (Register here)

When you think about the legacy of the ACLU, which pivotal case comes to mind? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the Air Facebook group, and help inform our coverage.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.