On the Frontlines of Freedom: Excerpt

On the Frontlines of Freedom

The Levittown case became a rallying point for civil libertarians at opposite ends of New Jersey to unite under one roof. In the north was Emil Oxfeld, a labor lawyer with a long history of volunteering for the ACLU. In the south was Emerson Darnell, affiliated with the Greater Philadelphia ACLU. A statewide New Jersey ACLU affiliate had been under discussion for years. In a press release dated June 1, 1960, Oxfeld said the Levittown case provided the necessary push to get one going. “We need to build on this,” he said. “The core of racial segregation in our communities is housing discrimination.”

In fact, New Jersey people and places had always figured prominently in the history of the national ACLU. The organization was founded in 1920 in New York by Roger Baldwin, a liberal social reformer committed to free speech. During the early days of the ACLU Baldwin, a New Yorker with a farm in Sussex County, spent much of his time aiding labor unions in their struggle against government repression. Many of their battles to organize or strike were waged in the old factory towns of northern New Jersey.

In 1921 the ACLU published a pamphlet announcing its “free speech victory” in Passaic. In 1920, police had been harassing the Amalgamated Textile Workers by denying them permits for meetings. One night Passaic police barged into an “unauthorized” meeting of textile workers and turned off the lights. Union and ACLU officials calmly lit candles and took turns reading the state Constitution in protest.

Baldwin’s actions on behalf of striking silk workers in Paterson led to his arrest in 1924. When he heard police were preventing the striking workers from meeting, he crossed the Hudson River and led a peaceful protest at City Hall. The protesters were listening to a recitation of the Bill of Rights when police grabbed an American flag belonging to two of them and ordered the crowd to disperse. Police arrested Baldwin and nine other men for “riotous” behavior. He was sentenced to a jail term of six months, although the state’s highest court later threw out the conviction. Baldwin was also involved in a long and bitter strike in 1926 in Passaic.

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Free-speech fights on behalf of organized labor continued to engage the ACLU well into the 1930s. “The issues of civil liberty in New Jersey, particularly in the industrial towns near New York, are many and constant,” the ACLU's 1935 annual report stated. “Practically every strike involves attacks by police or courts upon picketing.”

The report also described emerging civil liberties problems among northern New Jersey’s large population of Germans. Nazi-friendly groups were under attack and having trouble finding places to meet. The ACLU preached tolerance for the Friends of New Germany and its successor, the German American Bund, saying civil rights were guaranteed to all. The report said that German-Americans' right to meet and hold parades in the New Jersey towns lining the Hudson River had been “attacked” by police and injunctions.

Pro- and anti-Nazi groups actually came to blows in a Jersey City courtroom in 1934, when Union City officials sought an injunction against the Friends. The pro-Nazi club reportedly sang an anti-Semitic song to open meetings, beginning “Our greatest joy will come when Jewish blood flows through the streets,” and boycotted local Jewish merchants. ACLU counsel Arthur Garfield Hays, himself a Jew, came to their defense despite their hateful ways, saying members had the right to express their prejudice. “It is better to have them express this animosity openly than have it suppressed and (go) underground,” he told The New York Times.

The ACLU also lobbied the New Jersey Legislature against a bill making it a crime to spread propaganda inciting religious or racial hatred. The measure, commonly known as the Anti-Nazi Act, was adopted. When a test case involving 10 convicted Bund leaders came before the New Jersey Supreme Court, the justices declared the law unconstitutional, citing an ACLU amicus brief.

In those days Newark had its own committee of staunch civil libertarians, loosely allied with groups like the Committee of Industrial Organizations. Members lobbied legislators, monitored the Newark Police Department’s anti-Communist “Red Squad,” and defended the rights of pro-Nazi groups. The committee was directed by Nancy Cox, whose father was friendly with Roger Baldwin. Cox, 23, a Maplewood resident, was a former NYU student. Earlier she’d taught in a Pennsylvania steel town, and been jailed there for distributing pro-labor leaflets without police permission. The Newark News, surprised to learn that her ancestors predated the American Revolution, wrote this headline for a feature story on her: “Busy for Civil Liberties Union, She Forgets Mayflower Ancestry.”

Frank Hague
Jersey City Mayor Frank
“I am the Law” Hague

Out of this era came one of the ACLU’s biggest wins, Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization. It started as a dispute between Frank “I am the Law” Hague, the dictatorial mayor of Jersey City, and organized labor. Hague, mayor from 1917 to 1937 and the Democratic boss of Hudson County, had begun his political career as a friend of the working man, but turned against labor after fights between union and non-union workers disrupted construction of the Pulaski Skyway. The conflict deepened when Hague embarked on a savage campaign against unions, especially the CIO, a militant association of unskilled workers.

The Wagner Act of 1935 restrained employers from interfering with union activity, but Hague used his executive power to drum activists out of town. He banned leafleting, manhandled pickets and denied union organizers permits for meetings on grounds they were trouble-making “Communists.” One of the biggest fights between the mayor and the CIO occurred in 1937, when police arrested organizers and hauled them to the city line. In a radio address that December, ACLU director Roger Baldwin let Hague know he had gone too far. “Before we get through with Mayor Hague we will teach him a lesson in Americanism that he will never forget — that the defense of civil rights is not communism; (and) that loyalty to American institutions demands freedom of speech, press and assembly for all,” Baldwin said.

The fight continued through 1938, when Hague threw perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas out of town. Thomas was to address a crowd at Journal Square, but police hustled him into a car and drove him to the New York ferry. That was the last straw for the ACLU, which sought an injunction restraining Hague and other officials. After a colorful trial in Newark, District Court Judge William Clark — who compared Jersey City police to Adolf Hitler — permanently enjoined Hague and his men from interfering with peaceful public meetings, conducting illegal searches and “deporting” speakers. Attorneys Spaulding Frazer of Newark and Morris L. Ernst of New York were the victorious co-counsel for the ACLU and the C.I.O. Moments after the high court invalidated the ordinance restricting free speech, Arthur G. Hays, counsel for the ACLU, sent a telegraph to Jersey City police officials. It advised them that Norman Thomas and ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, previously personae non gratae, would be speaking at an open-air meeting in Jersey City the following Friday. Hague appealed, but in vain. On June 5, 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he and Jersey City police had clearly violated the First Amendment.

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