Roger Nash Baldwin was born January 21, 1884 in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and died August 26, 1981. Activist Margaret Sanger, who met Baldwin when he was a young social worker in St Louis, once declared, "The name Roger Baldwin and Civil Liberties are synonymous." He was a founder and first executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Baldwin was from a prominent Massachusetts family that could trace its roots to the Mayflower. His parents, Frank Fenno Baldwin and Lucy Cushing (Nash) Baldwin, were free-thinking Unitarians; family friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. Baldwin’s career was inspired by the Unitarian credo "to affirm and promote the inherent dignity and worth of every person."
Baldwin graduated from Harvard University in 1905. Baldwin lived and worked as a social worker in St. Louis, Missouri until 1917, serving as chief officer of the St. Louis Juvenile Court. He also founded the sociology department at Washington University, where he taught from 1906 to 1910. During this period, he co-authored Juvenile Courts and Probation, which became a standard textbook.
In St. Louis, Baldwin became acquainted with anarchist Emma Goldman and other radical leftists. When the United States entered World War I, Baldwin joined the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), specifically in a branch of the AUAM known as the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB), which defended conscientious objectors. In 1918 Baldwin himself was called up for military service, but refused to serve. He was sentenced to a year in jail. In 1919, Baldwin was active in the Industrial Workers of the World, just as that union came under attack by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer as part of Palmer’s “Red Scare”. This experience led to the formation, in January, 1920, of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Baldwin was appointed the organization’s first executive director, a post he occupied for thirty years. During his tenure, Baldwin was personally involved in two of the ACLU's most important cases: the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Other key cases and causes addressed under his leadership included the Scottsboro boys, censorship of literature like Joyce's Ulysses, and racial segregation.
While he was initially a supporter of the Soviet Union, and visited in 1927, he was appalled by Stalinism and broke with the communists in 1939, following Stalin’s Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler. Baldwin then purged the ACLU of all members, including fellow founder Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who had ever been members of “totalitarian” organizations (such as the Communist Party).
Following World War II, in 1947 General MacArthur invited Baldwin to go to Japan and South Korea to help develop civil liberties agencies. In 1948 Baldwin provided similar help to Germany and Austria. Baldwin chaired the International League for the Rights of Man for the next fifteen years, maintaining an office at the U.N. Secretariat in New York, and travelling around the world. Still later, he was a director and vice-president of the National Audubon Society.