Forsaking a Life of Privilege

Roger Baldwin was born to a life of privilege, but to a family who was socially active. He had two degrees from Harvard. When at Harvard, he taught adult education classes where he became aware of the challenges of low income families.

A family friend Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court Justice, recommended he move to St. Louis to teach sociology at Washington University. Roger became involved as an activist in such areas as housing, African American rights, and government reform.

Roger was against militarism and opposed the entry of America in World War I. When the Selective Services Act (SSA) was passed and young men became drafted for military service, Roger took up the cause of conscientious objectors. Eventually his efforts led to the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He was a conscientious objector himself and spent a year in jail for his refusal to comply with the provisions of the SSA.

As the director of the ACLU, Roger led the organization in some of the most prominent cases in the first half of the 20th Century. These included the Scopes trial on the teaching of evolution, the murder trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, accused anarchists, and the ban of the book, Ulysses.

Baldwin and the ACLU led to many breakthrough cases in freedom of speech. The ACLU took on many positions advocating for civil rights in all facets of society.

While Baldwin was at one time attracted to communism, he lost faith in communist practices and led the fight for civil rights in Soviet Union countries. While he maintained opposition to military conflict, General Douglas MacArthur asked him to lead the efforts for civil liberty protections in Japan and Korea. Shortly before his death, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The irony of civil rights protections is that we are often opposed to such efforts until they apply to us. The outrage generated by fights over civil rights in one period time leads to accepted values of society in subsequent years. Those who are vilified for supporting unpopular causes later become acknowledged as pioneers for social justice. It’s also ironic that we value innovation in our society unless it’s innovation involving evolving rights of others.

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“So long as we have enough people in this country willing to fight for their rights, we’ll be called a democracy.”   – Roger Baldwin

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