Speaking Out: ACLU-KY oral history project

****This post is created by Mary Pace, the oral historian who, along with students from the University of Louisville History Dept.,  worked on this KOHC grant funded project to document the oral history of the ACLU in Kentucky. The project was completed in Spring 2013 and the finished interviews will be publicly accessible through the University of Louisville Oral History Center.****

 

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Speaking Out:

ACLU Leaders Recall the Influences that Brought Them to the Civil Liberties Battlefield

 

Challenging the government may be a well-established and revered element of the American ethos but the courage to take a stand in the public square has been the possession of relatively few individuals. Some were recently interviewed for an oral history of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (ACLU-KY).

For nearly 60 years, its mission to protect the constitutional right to freedom of speech, religion, assembly, to name but a few of its interests, has placed the ACLU-KY at the forefront of emerging social movements, and often at the center of controversy. While the battles have reflected societal changes, the people who have argued and fought to protect the fundamental principles of democracy share a common narrative.

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At some point in their formative years, they witnessed or experienced an injustice that compelled them to speak out, even when the cause was unpopular. For many narrators, their parents or their religious upbringing instilled a deep sense of social justice. Through interviews with former and current ACLU-KY members and staff, this willingness, even compulsion, to question the status quo or to rail against inequality and unfair treatment, has been given voice.

Through a project sponsored by the Kentucky Oral History Commission, an agency of the Kentucky Historical Society, and the ACLU-KY during the spring of 2013, I interviewed eight narrators whose experiences with the ACLU-KY ranged from the early 1970s to current time. Two years earlier, in the spring of 2011, as a pilot to the project University of Louisville students conducted 11 interviews. The resulting 19 interviews are archived at the Oral History Center at U of L.

Founded in 1955, the history of the ACLU-KY is relatively well documented. Reams of legal findings trace the organization’s victories and losses. News accounts preserve how the events were presented to the public.  Minutes from meetings, correspondence and memos are carefully archived. A handful of books written by those who were deeply involved in the ACLU-KY offer text-based recollections of the past.

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However, these oral histories enliven the previous accounts as we hear the participants recall the influences that brought them to the civil liberties battlefield. We learn how citizen action begins with a personal experience. Made real through their memories, our communal history is lifted out of textbooks.

Take for example Kate Cunningham, a Louisville native who credits timing and her Catholic upbringing with her activism. When open housing  demonstrations took place in 1967, Cunningham was in college and despite feeling drawn to the cause did not participate. That inaction seemed to haunt her, and in 1968, a year out of college, she became involved in the Vietnam antiwar and GI coffee house movements.

Cunningham calls the KCLU “a scrappy little dog nipping at the heels of the power structure trying to enlighten people about the importance of civil liberties,” later adding that “it’s important to look back and remember that laws are not self-enforcing, and that history is made of people, people reacting to change.” A few years later, she was working full-time for the Kentucky Civil Liberties Union, the group’s founding name, helping soldiers apply as conscientious objectors, supporting efforts to desegregate schools, seeking improvements at the county jail and raising awareness of women’s rights. At the urging of her KCLU mentors, Cunningham entered law school in the mid 1970s and eventually launched a legal career at a time when women were not readily accepted in the field.

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Listening to Cunningham and others tell the story of the ACLU-KY, we also hear the voices of Kentuckians, imbued with a sense of justice, who were unwilling to be silent and instead stood in the public square to defend our constitutional rights and freedoms.

Images:

above – courtesy of ACLU-KY

left-  Mary Pace, courtesy of author

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