Restrictions on Reproduction
System of Arrangement
Scope and Contents
Title: American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California records
Date (inclusive): 1900-2000
Date (bulk): bulk 1934-2000
Collection Identifier: MS 3580
American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
117 cartons, 13 boxes (123.5 linear feet)
California Historical Society
678 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA, 94105-4014
Location of Materials:
Collection is stored onsite.
Language of Materials:
Collection materials are in English.
Abstract: The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) records cover the years 1900 to 2000, with the bulk dating
from 1934. Comprising correspondence, minutes, policy statements, annual reports, legal documents, attorneys’ working notes,
scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, and other printed material created or collected by the ACLU-NC, these records
document the establishment and activities of the northern California branch, including and especially its efforts to protect
and extend individual liberties in California. Administrative records (series 1), subject files (series 2), legal case files
(series 3), and scrapbooks (series 4) illuminate some of the major social and political conflicts of the twentieth century
in California and nationwide, including: the 1934 waterfront and general strike; the relocation and internment of Japanese
Americans during World War II; the mandatory loyalty oaths and HUAC hearings of the late 1940s and 1950s; the social movements
of the 1960s, including the Free Speech, anti-war, and civil rights movements; battles over abortion, immigration, and gay
rights in the 1970s and ’80s; and privacy and censorship controversies raised by the popularization of the Internet in the
1990s. Administrative records (series 1) also document the activities of the ACLU’s national office in New York.
Consistent with the ACLU-NC’s support for freedom of information and informed public discourse on matters of public interest,
the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California records are open to researchers. However, some categories of records
in the collection are restricted to protect privacy, confidentiality, and attorney-client privilege. These restrictions are
identified in the Access Policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California Archives at the California Historical
Society and summarized below.
All researchers must sign the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California Archives Records Access Agreement, confirming
that they have read and understood the restrictions outlined in the Access Policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of
Northern California Archives at the California Historical Society. These documents are available at the reference desk and
can be sent by e-mail.
Restricted Materials in the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California records, MS 3580:
Personnel records: Records that deal with personnel issues are closed during the lifetime of the person to whom they apply. This restriction
will be lifted if the person to whom the records apply gives his or her permission in writing to disclose said information.
Administrative records: Records maintained by ACLU-NC administrators are closed for 20 years after the creation of the record or 10 years after
its deposit at the California Historical Society, whichever is later, but in no case for more than 30 years after the creation
of the record.
Development records: Records relating to financial support from foundations or other legal entities but not to individuals or their family foundations
are closed for the same period as administrative records. If they contain information about substantive policy issues, records
relating to individual donors or their family foundations are closed for the same period as administrative records. Where
opened, the portions relating to individuals or their family foundations are closed during the lifetime of the person to whom
they apply. This restriction will be lifted if the person to whom the records apply gives his or her permission in writing
to disclose said information.
Legal case records:
Work-product privileged records, including correspondence, memoranda, drafts or briefs prepared in anticipation of litigation,
written statements of witnesses, and notes of mental impressions or personal recollections prepared or formed by an attorney,
are closed for 20 years after the case to which they apply is closed.
Attorney-client privileged records, including any documents reflecting an exchange of communication with a client or a potential
client made for the purpose of furnishing or obtaining professional legal advice and assistance, are closed for 75 years after
the creation of the record for all clients except children, where the period of closure is 100 years after the creation of
Other confidential records, including classified documents, documents that a court has placed under seal or subject to a protective
order, and documents that identify clients who have been represented anonymously or pseudonymously, are permanently closed
unless the records are declassified or unsealed, the protective order is modified, or the client or the client’s legal representative
has waived the privilege in writing.
All requests to reproduce, publish, quote from or otherwise use collection materials must be submitted in writing to the Director
of the Library and Archives, North Baker Research Library, California Historical Society, 678 Mission Street, San Francisco,
CA 94105. Consent is given on behalf of the California Historical Society as the owner of the physical items and is not intended
to include or imply permission from the copyright owner. Such permission must be obtained from the copyright owner. Restrictions
also apply to digital representations of the original materials. Use of digital files is restricted to research and educational
Restrictions on Reproduction
Reproduction of collection materials may be restricted at the discretion of CHS library staff.
[Identification of item], American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California records, MS 3580, California Historical Society.
Photographs have been removed and shelved under MSP 3580.
The collection was donated to the California Historical Society by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California
in 1977. Additional deposits were made in 2006 and 2011.
Additions to the collection are ongoing.
The first deposit of the ACLU-NC records was processed by California Historical Society staff in 1980-1981, with support from
the National Endowment for the Humanities. The public information subject files were processed by California Historical Society
staff in 2007-2008. Three boxes of video tapes and 31 boxes of case files, deposited at the California Historical Society
in 2006 and 2011, respectively, are unprocessed.
System of Arrangement
The ACLU-NC records are arranged in four series: (1) administrative records; (2) subject files; (3) case files; and (4) scrapbooks.
Series divisions, additional subdivisions, and subject headings are derived from the ACLU-NC's recordkeeping practices and
authority file, and have been retained in order to preserve the collection's integrity.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a non-profit organization committed to the defense, preservation, and extension
of civil liberties in the United States. Through legal and legislative advocacy – and public suasion – the ACLU has opposed
the restriction of individual liberties by laws and governments, defending a wide range of controversial causes.
The ACLU traces it roots to the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), a pacifist organization founded in 1916 to defend
the rights of pacifists, socialists, and labor activists to protest U.S. military conscription and intervention in World War
I. In response to the federal Espionage Act of 1917 – which curtailed and placed severe penalties on those activities deemed
hazardous to the war effort – the AUAM established a National Civil Liberties Bureau headed by Roger Baldwin. The 1918 Sedition
Act, followed by the arrest and deportation of suspected radicals in the Palmer Raids, convinced the Bureau that a permanent
civil liberties organization was necessary. In 1920 the AUAM was discontinued and the American Civil Liberties Union was founded
in New York with Roger Baldwin as executive director.
The 1920s were turbulent years for the new organization. Invoking the principle of academic freedom, the ACLU challenged Tennessee's
anti-evolution law in the famous Scopes Trial of 1925. Although public opinion remained decidedly pro-creationism, the well-publicized
trial propelled the ACLU into national prominence. On other fronts, from steel mills to textile factories, the ACLU championed
labor's right to organize and strike. Repeatedly, it bailed out and defended Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Haywood, leaders
of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), as well as scores of other workers. The Union was also deeply involved in efforts
to secure a retrial for Italian American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
In California, civil liberties advocates were engaged in a struggle to repeal the 1919 Criminal Syndicalism Act. Acting under
the auspices of the Labor Defense League, attorney Austin Lewis enlisted the aid of the ACLU to challenge and stop the arrests
of striking workers, labor activists, and radicals. Although concerned individuals, such as Lewis, were associated with the
national office, their attempts to begin a branch in Northern California were slow to materialize. Despite efforts by Lewis
and local director Elmo Robinson, the San Francisco chapter, begun in 1925, did not generate sufficient enthusiasm or financial
support, and it closed the following year.
The waterfront and general strike of 1934 ushered in a new era for the ACLU in northern California. After two workers were
killed on July 5 (“Bloody Thursday”) in San Francisco, the West Coast waterfront strike erupted into a city-wide general strike,
called by Bay Area unions in support of the striking longshoremen. As the strike escalated, so did the vigilante reaction
in the Northern California communities of Berkeley, Richmond, Palo Alto, and Santa Rosa, where the homes and offices of trade
unionists, radicals, and leftist organizations were raided. The most egregious of these incidents occurred in Santa Rosa,
where three residents accused of organizing apple pickers were beaten, tarred, and feathered.
Responding to a letter from the national office, six Bay Area ACLU supporters agreed to work with Austin Lewis and represent
the Union in San Francisco during the emergency. At the same time, the national office requested that two members of the Southern
California Branch, Ernest Besig and Chester Williams, travel to San Francisco to act as organizers and investigators in conjunction
with this new group.
Originally, Besig and Williams had intended to help file lawsuits and combat vigilantism. They soon began considering the
feasibility of establishing a northern California branch. Almost immediately they were embroiled in a struggle over the branch’s
political neutrality, a problem with which the ACLU-NC would grapple throughout its development. For Besig and Williams, the
issue was how to maintain a strictly non-partisan position despite pressure from the national office and the political Left
to join forces. Committing themselves to the principle of defending civil liberties regardless of politics, they made an effort
to organize. Chester Williams became the organizing director, seed money was received from the national office, and sixty
members were recruited to join to the newly established permanent branch of the ACLU in northern California.
In early 1935, after more than seventeen years of involvement with the ACLU, Austin Lewis resigned his position as counsel
to the executive committee, and Dr. George Hedley became the first executive director. During his short term in office a strong
executive board was established, while the Union continued the struggle to repeal the criminal syndicalism laws. Partisan
politics again interfered, and in April 1935 Dr. Hedley resigned. Ernest Besig returned to northern California in June to
investigate violations of civil liberties resulting from the Eureka lumber strike and subsequent vigilantism. As a result
of his involvement in this and other new cases, Besig remained in San Francisco and by the end of 1935 had become the director
of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC), a position he retained until his retirement in 1971.
Under Besig's leadership the ACLUL-NC intervened in a wide range of civil rights cases, challenging restrictions of individual
liberty in the spheres of education, work, politics, and travel. Its legislative and legal efforts included protecting the
children of Jehovah’s Witnesses from dismissal for refusing to salute the American flag at school; defending workers’ rights
to organize, picket, and distribute literature; promoting academic freedom; and challenging restrictive immigration policies
like the “anti-Oakie law.” During this period the ACLU-NC also defended far-right organizations, petitioning for the Nazi
Bund’s right of assembly.
From its beginnings, the ACLU-NC often parted ways with the national office. In 1941 the executive and military orders to
relocate and detain thousands of Japanese Americans provoked a major rift between the local branch and the national office.
At the onset of World War II, the national office passed the Resolution of 1942, codifying its policy of non-assistance to
individuals cooperating with enemies of the United States during wartime. This policy limited ACLU intervention on behalf
of Japanese Americans to the protection of the individual’s right to due process. In other words, the ACLU would defend the
right of individual Japanese Americans to a hearing prior to relocation, but would not challenge the constitutionality of
the internment itself.
Despite pressure from New York, the ACLU-NC became actively involved in the relocation issue, arguing that Executive Order
9066 was fundamentally unconstitutional. Under the Resolution of 1942, the national office objected to the ACLU-NC’s intervention
on behalf of Fred Korematsu and Japanese American citizens detained at Tule Lake. As a result of these disputes, the ACLU-NC
faced possible disaffiliation from the national organization. Finally, a compromise was reached: local branches could maintain
decision-making powers on local issues, leaving the national board the option to disclaim their actions. Likewise, local branches
could disclaim a position held by the national office.
Other significant civil liberties fights undertaken in the 1940s included defending conscientious objectors’ right to refuse
military service on the grounds of religious freedom, and advocating for the rights of returning Nisei soldiers and other
veterans of color.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, national post-war anxieties over Soviet expansion created a political climate hostile to the
Left. Under the rubric of national security, an invigorated House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) launched investigations
into government and private industry, academic institutions, and the military in order to uncover hidden subversives. Mandatory
loyalty oaths and classified government security hearings resulted from this official outpouring of anti-Communist anxiety.
The ACLU-NC actively challenged the various conformity oaths, as well as the authority of federal, state, and local investigating
committees to inquire into the associations and affiliations of private citizens. The organization also fought to reinstate
workers who had been fired because of their alleged political affiliations and beliefs. In less publicized cases, the ACLU-NC
defended gays and lesbians against invasion of privacy, entrapment, and intimidation; fought against the "gentlemen's agreements"
directed against Jews; and protested the distribution of religious literature in public schools. In a famous 1957 censorship
case, the ACLU-NC defended San Francisco bookseller and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who had been charged with obscenity for
selling Allen Ginsburg’s poem
In the 1960s and 1970s, the ACLU and its northern California affiliate became involved in many of the civil rights and social
movements that were sweeping the country. The ACLU-NC defended the civil liberties of students, activists, and demonstrators
involved in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, student anti-HUAC demonstrations, and anti-Vietnam war sit-ins, and challenged
Proposition 14, an initiative that repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963. The Union also defended the rights of women,
gays, and lesbians to due process and equality before the law in housing, employment, public accommodations, and child custody
cases, while advocating for the rights of the poor and incarcerated, including welfare recipients, prisoners, and patients
in mental hospitals. In 1972, the ACLU-NC successfully championed a Privacy Amendment to the state constitution, which helped
provide a legal foundation for abortion rights in California.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the ACLU-NC continued to defend and advocate for the rights of immigrants, women, gays and lesbians,
and prisoners. The affiliate founded the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, which provided legal support for gays and lesbians
in employment discrimination and other cases, while laying the groundwork for state domestic partnership laws. When the HIV/AIDS
crisis erupted, the ACLU-NC fought to protect the privacy, rights, and freedoms of HIV-positive people. At the same time,
the Union worked to defend and expand access to abortion in California. With the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, the ACLU-NC
began to address issues of censorship and privacy vis-à-vis computer technologies.
The ACLU-NC is a living organization that continues to provide legal and legislative advocacy for civil liberties in cases
involving a wide range of issues, including censorship, police practices, abortion, capital punishment, juvenile rights, criminal
justice, and the separation of church and state.
Scope and Contents
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) records cover the years 1900 to 2000, with the bulk dating
from 1934, when the Northern California branch was permanently established in San Francisco. Comprising correspondence, minutes,
policy statements, annual reports, legal documents, attorneys’ working notes, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, pamphlets,
and other printed material created or collected by the ACLU-NC, these voluminous records document the establishment and activities
of the northern California branch, including and especially its wide-ranging efforts – on the legislative, legal, and educational
fronts – to protect and extend individual liberties in California. Administrative records (series 1), subject files (series
2), legal case files (series 3), and scrapbooks (series 4) illuminate some of the major social and political conflicts of
the twentieth century in California and nationwide, including: the 1934 waterfront and general strike; the relocation and
internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; the mandatory loyalty oaths and HUAC hearings of the late 1940s and
1950s; the social movements of the 1960s, including the Free Speech, anti-war, and civil rights movements; battles over abortion,
immigration, and gay rights in the 1970s and ’80s; and privacy and censorship controversies raised by the popularization of
the Internet in the 1990s. Administrative records (series 1) also document the activities of the ACLU’s national office in
New York and its sometimes strained relationship with the northern California affiliate.
Subjects and Indexing Terms
American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California--Archives.
American Civil Liberties Union. Northern California Branch--Archives.
American Civil Liberties Union.
AIDS (Disease)--Patients--Civil rights--California.
Assembly, Right of--United States.
Civil rights--United States.
Constitutional law--United States.
Due process of law--United States.
Free Speech Movement (Berkeley, Calif.)
Freedom of association--United States.
Freedom of movement--United States.
Freedom of religion--United States.
Freedom of speech--United States.
General Strike, San Francisco, Calif., 1934.
Japanese Americans--Evacuation and relocation, 1942-1945.
Mentally ill--Civil rights--California.
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements--California.
The following resource was consulted during the 2011 revision:
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, "Our history," retrieved May 2011 from http://www.aclunc.org/about/history/index.shtml