On paper, an organization that supports the Bill of Rights seems harmless enough, but for eight decades the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has enraged liberals and conservatives alike. Admirers say it is a Constitutional watchdog that defends persecuted minorities and preserves freedom of speech and dissent. Detractors insist it has a warped view of what the Constitution says. No matter what you think of the ACLU, it is probably the most potent legal organization in America, with 275,000 members, taking some 6,000 cases annually.
In the early years, it was a pro-labor group that joined protesters in the field but seldom got involved in court battles. Roger Baldwin, the ACLU's founder, and its director for more than 30 years, thought of it as a small, elite, fast-moving gadfly, but over the years the ACLU developed offices all over the country and greatly expanded its membership. Recently the ACLU has been active on a wide range of issues, from affirmative action to the rights of gays, immigrants and Internet users. Its story is virtually a highlight reel of 20th-century legal history.