Roger Nash Baldwin was a seminal figure in the development of the human rights movement in the United States of America, bringing together leadership on domestic issues of what came to be referred to as civil rights, and on international human rights promotion. He was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, serving as its executive director until 1950. He also founded the International League for the Rights of Man, now known as the International League for Human Rights.
Roger Baldwin was born in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, on January 21, 1884. The first son of prominent Bostonian parents, Baldwin grew up in a Unitarian household with liberal leanings–W.E.B. DuBois was a family friend. Baldwin received an A.B. and an A.M. from Harvard University in 1905 and, on the advice of family friend Louis Brandeis, moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to pursue a career as a social worker. In St. Louis, Baldwin wore many hats, working in the neighborhood settlements, founding and teaching in the sociology department at Washington University, and co-authoring with Bernard Flexner Juvenile Courts and Probation, which was long a standard in the field and helped establish Baldwin’s reputation nationally. In St. Louis, Baldwin formed a friendship with anarchist Emma Goldman and took part in radical political and social movements.
A committed pacifist, Baldwin served a year in jail in New Jersey as a conscientious objector after refusing to register for the draft in 1918. In fact, it was Baldwin’s pacifism that indirectly led to the founding of the ACLU: he pushed the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), of which he was a member, to form a legal division to protect other conscientious objectors. The AUAM created the Civil Liberties Bureau (CLB) in 1917 and named Baldwin as its head. Baldwin led the CLB in separating from the AUAM, renaming itself the National Civil Liberties Bureau and expanding its scope to include defense of fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of speech and of the press. In 1920, the NCLB was renamed the American Civil Liberties Union. Baldwin stayed on as the executive director.
Under Baldwin, the ACLU took on some of the biggest challenges facing the nation as a whole. He was involved in every aspect of the Scopes trial, in 1925, and the Sacco and Vanzetti case, culminating in the failed appeal and execution of the two men in 1927. By challenging these issues through the court system, Baldwin and the ACLU helped shift civil rights from the political fringes to a universal cause.
In 1950 Baldwin resigned as executive director to become the ACLU’s international adviser and to devote himself more fully to his work with the International League for the Rights of Man, which he had helped to found in 1942 and where he served as chair for fifteen years. As chair, he traveled to the Middle East, Cuba, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Peru, Nigeria, many Western European countries, Poland, and the Soviet Union to document human rights situations and further the acceptance of human rights as a universal cause. The ILHR defines its mission as “defending human rights advocates who risk their lives to promote the ideals of a just and civil society in their homelands.”
Baldwin shifted his focus to international affairs in 1947, when the U.S. War Department invited him to go to Japan and South Korea to assist in developing civil liberties agencies in the nascent democracies there. He founded the Japan Civil Liberties Union. In 1948 General Lucius Clay invited Baldwin to Germany and Austria to provide similar assistance in those two countries.
In 1981, Baldwin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter. He died on August 26, 1981.
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