Because I have felt the friendship, support and encouragement of supporters like you, for so many years, I want to tell you this news directly: I will be retiring as Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida, following the November Election.
I will retire as the longest serving state ACLU affiliate director — 21 years as Florida Director and 23 years as the Director of our organization’s Michigan affiliate. As one reporter noted, I have been a state ACLU Director for almost half the life of the organization.
It is time to pass the torch to new and younger leadership. For more than four decades I have been entrusted to lead the ACLU in two states. I can’t imagine a better job than being responsible for working to make the promise of freedom a reality for all and fighting back against the policies of those who abuse their power by violating human rights. This has not only been the opportunity of a lifetime, and a wonderful, exciting and rewarding career – for the last 44 years, the ACLU has been my life.
The defeats we’ve had were disappointing, but the victories have been thrilling. In Michigan, a lawsuit to hold the FBI responsible for the murder of Viola Liuzzo following the Selma voting rights march in 1965 had a disappointing outcome. But the work to uncover the record of the FBI’s efforts under J. Edgar Hoover to disrupt the Civil Rights Movement led to litigation that resulted in a federal judge holding the FBI (through the work of their informants) responsible for the attack on the Freedom Riders in 1961.
Here in Florida, it was certainly disappointing when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear our challenge to library book censorship by the Miami-Dade School Board. I recall the chaos of the 2000 Bush-Gore Election, but then we worked, ultimately successfully, to change the system by which the people of Florida vote. I also recall the intense pressure on our lawyers who worked with skill and dedication to resist the disgraceful intervention of both the state and federal governments in the terrible Terri Schiavo saga.
I hope you take pride in knowing that, on so many issues, including attacks on abortion rights, restrictions on voting rights and efforts to impose a regime of drug testing on state employees and applicants for temporary assistance, the ACLU successfully defended civil liberties from assaults by the Florida Legislature and more than one Governor.
Sometimes we live (OK, maybe I have lived) so much in the realm of big ideas that we lose sight of how our battles to protect important principles have an impact on the lives of individual people. As I travel around Florida, I met families we helped create by our work that ended the ban on adoptions by gay men and lesbians. And I still feel the thrill when a federal judge ordered state officials to respect the dignity of same-sex couples who were married in other states, but not recognized in Florida.
I planned my retirement for after the November Election because, as you may have heard me say, 2018 may be one of the most consequential elections in the political and legal history of Florida. The Constitutional Revision Commission was primed to put the fundamental values of privacy and religious freedom up for a vote. The state constitutional right to privacy has been used (we are in court right now using it) to protect women’s access to abortion from continuous attacks by our Legislature. The constitutional provision barring taxpayer funds to churches and sectarian institutions is the heart and soul of separation of church and state.
I will retire feeling proud that we played a key part in getting the Constitution Revision Commission to step back from approving proposals to shrink the right to privacy and repeal state constitutional separation of church and state. Neither will be on the ballot. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Florida constitutional right to privacy (that protects the right to abortion) and the constitutional tradition of separation of church and state (that reserves taxpayer funds for public schools and requires for church-run schools to be supported by the generosity of parishioners) are secure at least for another 20 years – until the next Constitutional Revision Commission.
But what will be on this November’s ballot, and what I look forward to working on together with you over the next few months, is Amendment 4 – an historic effort to end the system of lifetime felon disfranchisement. We have an opportunity, finally – after 150 years – to consign this policy to Florida’s Jim Crow history. We can put into our state’s Constitution the simple ethical principle that those who complete the terms of a sentence imposed by a judge have earned their way back into the community – including the fundamental right of every citizen to vote.
We played a major role in getting Amendment 4 on the ballot, and if we work hard, we can change Florida forever. This will be the most important cause I, and maybe most of us, will ever work on, and I am excited by this opportunity.
I will leave behind an extremely competent and dedicated staff now numbering more than 30; they merit your continued support. And, I leave behind cherished fellow Executive Director colleagues around the country and my national colleagues, the best national leadership in our organization’s almost 100-year history. Working with my colleagues around the country and with our national staff has made this job such a satisfying and continuous learning experience – a graduate school for human rights activists.
I want to thank the volunteer leaders and staff members (especially Sabrina Williams, who has tried valiantly to manage me, and has done so gently and with heroic patience) who have been my partners. But I want to especially thank you. I am so grateful to our members and donors for the support and friendship you have given me over the last 21 years. I hope to see many of you in the months leading up to the November election to thank you personally.
A search committee has been appointed, and their work to identify my successor has begun. Further details will be posted on our website in the coming weeks. We are fully committed to ensuring a seamless transition.
I have been sustained in this work by the recognition that it, and freedom in America, is characterized as “two steps forward, one step back.” (Yes, we are in a big “one step back” period now.) But it must be acknowledged that we are freer and more equal in 2018 than when I joined the ACLU in the 1960s in an America characterized by legally-enforced racial segregation, legally-permissible gender discrimination and the complete absence of rights and dignity for LGBT friends, neighbors and family.
But there is so much work to be done. I urge you to find ways, as civil libertarians, to address the deluge of money in our politics that is destroying our democracy, the epidemic of gun violence that is devastating our nation, and the failure to address America’s original sin of racism that eats away at our soul.
I look forward to more time with my wife, Beth Wilson, who is winding down her own career of more than 25 years with the ACLU – in Kentucky, then Florida, and more recently Georgia and Louisiana.
My best wishes for the vital work (now urgent!) in which the ACLU community, here in Florida and nationwide, is — and will continue to be —engaged.
Now, let’s work for the passage of Amendment 4 this November and end the injustice of lifetime voting disfranchisement.