The ACLU of Louisiana was founded in New Orleans in January 1956 by a group of civil rights activists engaged in the battle to desegregate Louisiana. Mixed-race meetings were illegal at the time, and those who defied those laws – including our founders - were at risk of arrest, police harassment, and violence.
The early years of the organization were marked by protests, arrests, and attacks, including the bombings of ACLU-LA president Steve Rubin’s car, and of the First Unitarian Church, where the ACLU-LA frequently met.
Two of the founders, James Dombrowski (director of the New Orleans-based Southern Conference Educational Fund) and Benjamin E. Smith (an attorney practicing law in New Orleans), along with Bruce C. Waltzer (also an attorney and an associate of Ben Smith) were arrested in 1963. The arrests came after a Louisiana State grand jury indicted all three for failing to register as agents for SCEF, which they alleged was a communist front organization. The State alleged in their indictment of Dombrowski, Smith, and Waltzer that they were promoting the overthrow of the state of Louisiana by participating in mixed-race meetings and advocating the abolition of the state’s segregation laws.
The three men sued, and within two years after their arrest, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided the case, Dombrowski v. Pfister, in their favor, and ordered the dismissal of all charges.
Over our 60 year history, the ACLU of Louisiana has been at the forefront of the fight to preserve the civil liberties of all of the people of Louisiana. We have continued in our mission, fighting for the First Amendment, for racial justice, and for due process and privacy rights. We have defended the rights of women, prisoners, LGBT people, immigrants, and others whose rights have been at risk. Our work has covered the entire gamut of civil liberties, and has taken us all over the state and to the U.S. Supreme Court. It has been said that the fight for civil liberties never stays won; as cynical as that may sound, the ACLU of Louisiana remains confident that we—and justice—will prevail.
One of our founders, the civil rights attorney Ben Smith, is the namesake and inspiration for our annual Ben Smith Civil Liberties Award, presented each spring since 1976. The Ben Smith Award honors an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of civil liberties in Louisiana.
— Our thanks to Bruce Waltzer for his invaluable assistance in recording and preserving our history. —