Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases
Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman
Reviewed by Diane Rodriguez, Assistant Director
Our national anthem proclaims that America is “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but it hasn’t always been that way for many Americans, and the struggle continues. Many of the freedoms current generations now enjoy—and may take for granted—were not automatically guaranteed to many Americans. Dedicated advocates have fought in court for our rights, defending the oppressed and underrepresented. It is difficult, groundbreaking work to question the laws and norms of the day and speak up for what is truly fair, constitutional, and just. For the past 100 years, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has made it their mission to “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Some of our nation’s greatest legal minds have worked tirelessly with the ACLU to defend freedom and justice for all. Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases celebrates a century of the ACLU’s work, discussing the cases through storytelling by some of our most celebrated authors. Their artful narratives bring the issues closer to home, relating these complex legal cases to our daily lives and reminding us that each and every liberty fought for is a treasure to be defended and protected for future generations.
Each case is introduced with a brief legal synopsis, followed by a story or analysis illustrating the humanity behind the legal issue. It is important to remember there are actual faces behind the “name cases” that get tossed around in the news and in political circles. Someone experienced great wrong before the case was fought and the injustice was righted. One example is Street v. New York (1969), where a 51-year-old African American New York City bus driver with no previous criminal record set his American flag on fire in protest following the shooting of civil rights icon James Meredith. The story of Sydney Street, told by Rabih Alameddine in “The Right to Offend,” tells how he was convicted of violating a statute making it a crime to publicly “cast contempt upon [the U.S. flag] either by words or act.” The ACLU argued that the part of the law regarding “words” was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict on First Amendment grounds. Just as fascinating are the actual facts of the flag burning itself. Street was a veteran of World War II and a Bronze Star Medal recipient. He held nothing but honor for the flag, which he treated with the utmost respect until he set it on fire. He took care to see that the flag was properly folded and held it as long as he could before setting it upon paper, so it never touched the ground. His act wasn’t a malicious act against the flag, but a bold protest against the slaying of a community icon—an act meant to bring attention to a great wrong by exercising his freedom of speech. The illustration of his story brought clarity and purpose to his actions beyond the statutory language and legalese.
The story of Miranda v. Arizona (1966) was more than “a series of Supreme Court cases going back over 30 years, pitting the Constitution’s promise of the protection against self-incrimination against a favorite tool of law enforcement: the confession.” Ernesto Miranda was not a model citizen—a small-time criminal whose name eventually became a common term. In this case, the ACLU saw an opportunity for the Supreme Court to secure the rights of criminal suspects. Everyone now knows that to Mirandize means to inform a criminal suspect of his or her rights to remain silent and to an attorney. As Hector Tobar recounts in “Ernesto’s Prayer,” beyond the incarceration and court case of Ernesto Miranda was a series of events that ultimately made Miranda Rights a household phrase, as well as dramatic language in Hollywood crime dramas. One of the drafters of the Miranda language, Nevada County District Attorney Harold Berliner, was also a printer and “produced hundreds of thousands of vinyl cards of the new language” and sold them nationwide. One of the cards fell into the hands of television producer Jack Webb as he was writing the first episode of the crime drama Dragnet. He worked the phrases into the script and created an unprecedented fusion of constitutional law and popular culture, thus educating Americans of their rights for generations to come.
Fight of the Century effectively highlights approximately 40 seminal cases and their fascinating stories that the ACLU fought on behalf of all Americans. While the protections the ACLU has won in their first hundred years have enriched our lives immeasurably, there is more work to be done. In these uncertain times, it is comforting to know that the ACLU is on watch, persisting in their vigilance and passion for justice, offering a beacon of hope and protection for all Americans now and into the future.