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ACLU Finds a Home in Grand Rapids

Underwriting support from:

ACLU Grand Rapids

Miriam Aukerman, staff attorney

89 Ionia NW (at Fountain Street) Third Floor


Miriam Aukerman, ACLU staff attorney

Miriam Aukerman, ACLU staff attorney

Dr. Walter Bergman

Dr. Walter Bergman /Grand Rapids Public Library Flickr Pool

Page One of the US Constitution

Page One of the US Constitution /Wikipedia

More than 50 years ago, Grand Rapidian Dr. Walter Bergman was beaten by members of the the Klu Klux Klan. Bergman was part of the Freedom Riders movement, a group that rode buses to the deep south to see first hand if institutions were compliant with the Civil Rights Act. Interstate bus lines like Greyhound were suspected of discriminatory seating practices. While at a rest area in Alabama, Bergman was beaten so badly by the Klan that he suffered a stroke and needed to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Bergman, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan, sued the Federal Bureau of Investigation which was found to be guilty of failing to prevent Bergman's beating.

Though the ACLU has long had a presence here (the Bergman case was in 1977), the organization only recently opened its first Grand Rapids office. It has had a local board for many years and worked through the local legal community. "Grand Rapids is an important city in Michigan. It is important in terms of legislation and the media, and there is a different set of issues here than on the eastern side of the state. We want to be able to be more responsive to issues at the ground level and the best way to do that is to be present here and have local connections," said Miriam Aukerman, staff attorney with the West Michigan Regional Office. "Developing partnerships with organizations in the community is part of what will help make the ACLU successful."

Planning for the Grand Rapids office was in the works for several years and an advisory committee of residents and funders helped bring the office online.

Legal cases that the ACLU acts on arise from a variety of sources, "Certainly, people come to the ACLU every day and ask for help with protecting their civil liberties. We have local lawyers, committees and boards who refer cases. The membership of the ACLU will make us aware of cases and we will read about issues in the media that we want to work on. There are also large systemic issues that involve more than one individual that need to be addressed," said Aukerman. Those issues might include inequities in the education system or criminal justice.

"The school to prison pipeline is a good example of a large scale issue," Aukerman said. The school to prison pipeline refers to  students who are expelled from school and have no educational options due to a lack of alternative education. In many cases these students resort to criminal activity resulting in imprisonment. For the most part, these young people come from very low-income homes and homes where abuse, neglect and violence are prevalent. They often suffer from learning disabilities. The zero-tolerance rules and policies in many schools leave these vulnerable students without options. "We are looking at procedures and policies that would protect these young people," said ACLU Michigan Director Kary Moss. "You can't have an effective education system when so many kids are lost each year."

"The ACLU is the most conservative organization in the country," said Moss with a bit of irony. "Our job is to defend the Constitution. That's the heart and soul of the work we do." She explained, "I try to resist using labels [like] conservative or liberal. I think a lot of times labels oversimplify our work and people forget that the heart of our work is defending the Constitution."

"The issues we address are aspirational--we are concerned with preserving the principles that make this democracy work," Moss said.

The ACLU made a mark for itself in a number of memorable cases in American history including the Scopes Monkey Trial, Brown Vs. The Board of Education, Roe v. Wade and the well-known and difficult First Amendment case where Nazis were allowed to march in Skokie, Illinois, a locale where many Holocaust survivors lived.

Some of the areas that the ACLU is concerned with at present include freedom of speech, capital punishment, racial justice, religion and belief, human rights, immigrant rights, LGBT rights and technology and liberty.

The ACLU is supported with private donations both locally and on the national level.


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