The precursor to the ACLU began with the anti-militarism movement during World War I. Some Americans were opposed to U.S. involvement in the war and the mandatory draft. In 1915, a group of pacifists in New York formed the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) to work against this through political activism and the publication of anti-war newsletters, magazines and leaflets. However, any kind of dissent against the war was deemed un-patriotic and dangerous at the time. President Woodrow Wilson said, "the authority to exercise censorship is absolutely necessary to the public safety" during war time [ref]. President Theodore Roosevelt called anti-war advocates "enemies at home." [ref]. Many of those in the anti-war movement were Marxists, anarchists and immigrants, which didn't help the cause.
Those working against the war soon realized that the real fight was against government repression. Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin, both social workers and supporters of the labor movement, formed a group within the AUAM to assist with the legal cases of those who had been prosecuted, fined or imprisoned for printing or saying things that were against the war. This group was the Civil Liberties Bureau. Eventually, AUAM split because of Eastman and Baldwin's association with so-called radical groups. When AUAM faded, the two formed the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB).
After refusing to comply with a draft notice, Baldwin served a year in jail. Upon his release, Baldwin headed up a restructured NCLB, now the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU's official "birthday" is January 19, 1920 [ref].
Initially, the ACLU did not see litigation as the primary means of affecting change. Baldwin intended to use publicity, protests and publications. The reason for this was simple -- the courts of the time, including the Supreme Court, were openly hostile toward civil liberties. The NCLB had lost virtually all the court cases they had fought during the war years.
The ACLU was soon working on a wide range of issues, including supporting labor unions, opposing military propaganda in schools and working with the NAACP to ensure the rights of black Americans in an era before Civil Rights had become a major American issue.
In the next section, we'll examine the influence the ACLU has had on Constitutional law.