Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"Red Riots" and the Origins of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, 1915-1930

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"Red Riots" and the Origins of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, 1915-1930

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article investigates the formation of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (CLUM) in the early twentieth century. This organization evolved as a reaction to local and national events, including the Palmer Raids and the wider Red Scare following World War I, as well as the Anti-Anarchy Bill passed by the Massachusetts General Court in the wake of the Roxbury "red riot" and the Lawrence textile mill strike. Unlike similar groups in other states, the CLUM began as a unit of another progressive association, the League for Democratic Control, before emerging as an independent group. This research is drawn from the author's dissertation, which focused on civil liberties in Boston, 1915-45.

The protection of civil liberties is never so tenuous as during times of national crisis. Fears of subversion from within are heightened. Public opinion often supports the suppression of the rights of individuals when undertaken for the defense of the nation. Students of contemporary politics need only look to the 2001 USA Patriot Act (HR 3162) for confirmation. The Patriot Act is, however, nothing new. It is but another link in a long chain of state and federal legislation stretching back to the foundation of the American colonies aimed at protecting the public from dangerous or radical philosophies.

The entry of the United States into World War I prompted a widespread crackdown on anti-war dissent. The subsequent success of the Russian Revolution of 1917 spurred a Red Scare following the end of the war. At the moment the US became a world power, the world never seemed so threatening to time-honored American values, whether prompted by German militarists or Russian Communists. The administration of President Woodrow Wilson acted swiftly to circumscribe criticism of the war, government policies, and the military, believing such disparagement to be detrimental to the monumental undertaking of "making the world safe for democracy."1

Restrictions on free speech in wartime created the need for an organization committed to defending the right to dissent and to aiding those facing coercive action from federal, state, and local authorities. This need spurred the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a nation-wide group based in New York, with many local affiliates, including one in Massachusetts. The affiliate that emerged in Boston resulted from a complex combination of spontaneous local action by concerned citizens coupled with prompting by Roger Baldwin of the ACLU. This was somewhat reflective of the experience in other states. What makes the Boston branch unique, however, was that it began as a unit of the local chapter of the British-based League for Democratic Control, from which it separated in 1920. The Boston group's main contribution from the late 1920s onward was its focus on combating censorship.2 The connection between Boston and the national organization would not solidify until the first years of the Great Depression when a deepening financial crisis forced the independent-minded Boston organization to seek financial shelter within the national ACLU.


Government suppression of perceived "radical" speech in 1917 and 1918, along with the Red Scare in the immediate post-war years, served to mobilize the American Left. Numerous groups appeared both during and after the war, driven by a variety of aims, including pacifism, social justice, and the protection of civil liberties. These organizations included the League to Enforce Peace, the League for Democratic Control, the NonPartisan League, the National Popular Government League, and others. On both the local and national levels, the challenges brought on by the war spawned organizations dedicated to the protection of civil liberties.

One of the most important groups to emerge from this chaotic period was the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) in 1915, headquartered in New York City. …

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