North Carolina ACLU marks 50 years of activism in Charlotte at Levine Museum

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina exhibit is on display at the Levine Museum of the New South through July 12.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina exhibit is on display at the Levine Museum of the New South through July 12. adunn@charlotteobserver.com

The American Civil Liberties Union came to North Carolina in 1965 as the notorious “speaker ban” legislation kept people labeled as Communists from speaking at state universities.

Two years later, James E. Ferguson II began his legal career in Charlotte, fired up to attack racial injustice. His firm’s work would include securing forced busing to end desegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

At the beginning, ACLU meetings were overwhelmingly white, Ferguson said. Civil rights protests were majority black. But soon, the two groups realized that they couldn’t truly exist separately.

“It began to occur to me that without the protections of the First Amendment, we couldn’t do the work of civil rights. I soon learned that these concepts, these actions were inextricably bound to each other,” Ferguson said. “The coming together of these two movements was nothing less than monumental and historic.”

Ferguson described how he came to work with the ACLU as part of a panel discussion Sunday at the Levine Museum of the New South marking the 50-year anniversary of the organization’s chapter in North Carolina.

The discussion came several months after the ACLU debuted an exhibit at the museum highlighting the work done in the organization’s five decades in the state.

Amanda Hughett, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University, pored through about 300 boxes full of letters, newspaper clippings, court records and meeting agendas in the organization’s archives to highlight the group’s work advocating for issues on issues like free speech, racial justice, gay rights and privacy.

One case involved the “Hippie House” in Charlotte, where the ACLU of North Carolina defended 12 people with long hair whose home was repeatedly searched in the mid-1960s under the state’s vagrancy laws. The ACLU won, and the vagrancy law was struck down.

ACLU leaders also described Sunday how they have remained active in the state, particularly citing legislative changes in the past four years. The ACLU was involved in the court case that ultimately led to gay marriage being legalized in North Carolina and has fought the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ practice of opening meetings with Christian prayers.

“On a daily basis, we are facing attempts by our legislature to cut down our individual civil rights,” said ACLU North Carolina board President Jillian Brevorka. “Despite 50 years, we're still facing the exact same issues.”