A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ACLU OF ARIZONA
By Cornelius Steelink
In September of 1958, three Tucson ACLU members sent a questionnaire to the 120 other members of the national ACLU in Arizona asking them if they thought there was a need for a chapter in Arizona. The response was a resounding "yes".
Here were some of the reasons for an ACLU presence in 1958 in Arizona:
IT WAS AGAINST THE LAW
• To marry a person of a different race
• To be a vagrant, i.e. a person with no visible means of support
• To distribute birth control information in Maricopa County
IT WAS LEGAL
• To deny public accommodations to non-Caucasians
• For police to arrest and interrogate suspects without informing them of their right to counsel or remain silent
• There was no office of public defender in the entire state.
Within the following decade, all that (and more) was changed by the fledgling affiliate of the ACLU. It was chartered on June 22, 1959 by the national organization, which established a northern chapter (Phoenix) and a southern chapter (Tucson). A state board of directors was created, all of whom were volunteers. A panel of cooperating attorneys was recruited, all of whom were also volunteers. These founders committed themselves to defend individual rights in Arizona, through litigation, legislation and public education. The Arizona chapters began working in all three areas shortly after the charter.
Legal challenges to unconstitutional laws and official practices were initiated in the early years. Many of these became landmark cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court (Miranda, Gault, Elfbrandt); others by Arizona Courts (Oyama, Peckham). During the same period ACLU attorneys appeared before governing bodies such as city councils, boards of supervisors and school boards to represent civil liberties clients or issues. Since 1973, defending the rights of prisoners has been a long time project of the ACLU of Arizona.
Lobbying the Arizona State Legislature became the second activity of the new affiliate. Members formed a Legislative Coordinating Committee spearheaded by Tucson attorney Leonard Scheff. During each legislative session the committee would analyze all bills for possible civil liberties impacts and print these analyses in a weekly bulletin which was mailed to all interested members. The bulletins editors would urge members to contact their legislators on specific bills. Committee members were scattered throughout the state. In the early 1960s, individual letters or telephone calls from rural county constituents were especially effective in the rural dominated legislature. The crowning achievement of this Committee's effort was the passage of a law in 1964 authorizing public defender offices in Maricopa and Pima Counties. Among legislators, it became known as the "7-ounce beer can trade off". The history of this Committee was documented in a monograph by Professor Clifford Lytle, published by the University of Arizona press in 1969. It described the Committee as a remarkable example of a citizens' lobby. The previous year the Committee had also been instrumental in lobbying the repeal of the Arizona miscegenation law.
Educating the public through major events was the third mission of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union. Bill of Rights Day was celebrated in both Phoenix and Tucson in 1959 with speeches by Norman Thomas, a founder of the national ACLU in 1920. In 1961, Congressman James Roosevelt addressed a packed auditorium in Tucson on the threats of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the following years annual dinners in both cities by keynote speakers continued to attract news media and new members.
The fourth challenge was creating a viable organizational structure. A newsletter was established immediately in 1959. Two were published that year in mimeographed form and mailed to all members. Representatives from both chapters were named to a state board which set up regular meetings. Most of the early meetings were held in Casa Grande, a small rural town half-way between Phoenix and Tucson. ACLU board meetings were held in the basement of the local Presbyterian Church since local cafes would not serve African Americans. By necessity, these were sack lunch meetings. In 1966, the ACLU of Arizona hired Ted Mote as its first full-time executive director with an office in Tempe. New chapters continued to be added to the affiliate from around the state. The ACLU of Arizona opened a satellite office in Tucson in 1973 and hired Helen Mautner as its associate director. It maintained an active, high-profile ACLU presence in the surrounding communities for 15 years. The 50 year journey of the Arizona affiliate has experienced rough times and some crises. Dedicated volunteers and tireless staff have nurtured an organization to its present status: the foremost defender of the Bill of Rights in Arizona with over 5,000 members and a fully-staffed office.