The American Civil Liberties Union is freedom's watchdog, working daily in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend individual rights and personal freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The ACLU was founded in 1920.
The ACLU of Mississippi is dedicated to promoting, defending, and extending civil rights and civil liberties to all Mississippians with emphasis on issues related to criminal justice reform, education opportunities, equal access/equality for all, voting rights, and governmental transparency and accountability. We accomplish our mission through legislation, litigation and advocacy.
Our vision is that every Mississippian live in a just and equitable state free from discrimination, where they can enjoy all the freedoms afforded them inherently and by the U.S. Constitution.
Values are the ACLU-MS’s source of guidance and what it stands for. They are timeless and seldom change.
- We value inclusion.
- We make a difference in the community we serve.
- We fight for justice, equality, and fairness.
- We are guardians of civil liberties.
- We are responsible, accountable, honest, and passionate.
History of the ACLU of Mississippi
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi (ACLU-MS), incorporated on June 16, 1969, was born out of the will of individuals associated with two religious groups, Delta Ministries and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson. This affiliate of the national ACLU began on the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, during the anti-war and women's rights movements.
Founders of the ACLU-MS sat inside Steven's Kitchen on Farish Street and the Unitarian Universalist Church. They thought about missing elements from the efforts to continue the struggle for justice in Mississippi. Schools were no longer segregated, but the newly integrated African American students were mistreated. Anti-war protestors were being harassed and arrested for not enlisting in the military and for how they dressed and looked. The country was on the brink of the Roe v. Wade decision, and women sought avenues to discuss their equality issues and reproductive rights. In Mississippi, hundreds of women died as a result of illegal abortions. White, liberal Mississippians and African Americans, many of whom had done civil rights work together, wanted a statewide organization to address these multiple social justice issues while continuing to work in solidarity with the ongoing struggle for civil rights in Mississippi.
Beginning an ACLU affiliate seemed like a good idea since the ACLU had already been in Mississippi for several years as a part of the Lawyer's Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC). The national ACLU appointed Al Bronstein to work in Mississippi as lead attorney for LCDC from 1964 to 1968, representing civil rights workers.
Charlie Horowitz, Owen Brooks, and Rims Barber worked for Delta Ministry, an organization formed in Mississippi by the National Council of Churches Commission on Religion and Race. Brooks had moved to Mississippi in 1965 and became the Delta Ministry director, supporting Horowitz's efforts to begin the ACLU affiliate. Horowitz was the central Mississippi staff person and the 'prime mover' of the ACLU-MS. In 1969, Jan Lewis, Anthony Layng, James Mays, and James Lewis incorporated the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.
Charlie Horowitz became the first affiliate director. Other early members included Ernst Borinski, Jessie Morris, Frank Parker, former Executive Director David Ingebresten, and Congressman Bennie Thompson. For many years Rims Barber provided office space and technical assistance.
One of the ACLU's early issues included challenging the Mississippi University for Women for discriminating against men in their admission policies. During the first few years, ACLU members met at the UU Church, where many congregants were active in the Peace movement and the United Farm Workers. An Annual Art Auction provided critical funding and also mobilized membership.
Early controversy nearly destroyed the affiliate in 1977 when the Ku Klux Klan requested assistance in challenging a Harrison County School Board's decision to turn down their request to hold a rally on local school grounds. After heated affiliate board debates, the board vote was split in half. The board president broke the tie, Dick Johnson, a philosophy professor at Tougaloo College.
In the early 1990s, the affiliate challenged the state's refusal to open the files of the State Sovereignty Commission. The Mississippi government created the Sovereignty Commission in 1956 to monitor the actions of civil rights groups and individuals. The commission infiltrated groups with informants, spread propaganda to interfere with civil rights work, and kept law enforcement informed about meetings, events, and the names of workers. In 1977, there were files on 250 organizations and 10,000 people. In 1989, the Clarion Ledger reported that the commission had helped Byron De La Beckwith's defense by screening potential jurors before his second trial in the 1963 assassination of Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers. Long-term board members Rims Barber and Owen Brooks were two of many plaintiffs who signed on to the suit to force the state to open these files to the public. In 1994, U.S. District Judge William Barbour, Jr. again agreed with the ACLU of Mississippi and ordered the state to unseal the files of the State Sovereignty Commission.
Other prominent ACLU of Mississippi cases includes challenges to conditions in the state's maximum security prison, Parchman, and challenges to bans on adoptions by gay couples. Two significant issues defined our affiliate in the 1980s. One case challenged the lighting of a cross on a 20-story state building, and the other challenged a state law that mandated Christian prayer in public schools.
The Mississippi affiliate of the ACLU has had a constant presence in the state for over 50 years. We're still going strong with ongoing support from the national ACLU and thousands of members and allies!