On Sale July 7, 2020
Published to coincide with the ACLU’s centennial, a major new book by the nationally celebrated journalist and bestselling author
For a century, the American Civil Liberties Union has fought to keep Americans in touch with the founding values of the Constitution. As its centennial approached, the organization invited Ellis Cose to become its first ever writer-in residence with complete editorial independence.
The result is Cose’s groundbreaking Our Democracy, If We Can Keep It: The ACLU and Its 100-Year Battle for Our Rights, the most authoritative account ever of America’s premier defender of civil liberties. A vivid work of history and journalism, Our Democracy, If We Can Keep It is not just the definitive story of the ACLU but also an essential account of America’s rediscovery of rights it had granted but long denied. Cose’s narrative begins with World War I and brings us to today, chronicling the ACLU’s role through the horrors of 9/11, the saga of Edward Snowden, and the phenomenon of Donald Trump.
A chronicle of America’s most difficult ethical quandaries from the Red Scare, the Scottsboro Boys’ trials, Japanese American internment, McCarthyism, and Vietnam, Our Democracy, If We Can Keep It weaves these accounts into a deeper story of American freedom—one that is profoundly relevant to our present moment.
Advance Reviews and Praise
Ellis Cose’s elegant, masterly history of the ACLU is also a report on our country’s chronic autoimmune disorder, in which the system risks its own health in the act of “saving” itself. One comes away from this unflinching account with the urgent sense that there are no simple diagnoses or cures, that democracy is an organism in a constant cycle of decay and repair—and that survival is not inevitable.
–Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama-The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution
“Conflicts over hate, freedom-of-speech, economic justice, and national security swirl about us. But as we struggle to make sense of the frenzied present, we forget crucial lessons from the past. Ellis Cose’s remarkable history of the ACLU reminds us of that past through. It cautions us against blindly empowering the state to suppress speech because it deeply offends us. After all, the ACLU’s history reveals how such power was abused to punish pacifists, labor activists, and racial minorities. There are no easy answers for a democracy in troubled times, but if we are to “keep it,” we surely need the nuance, honesty, intelligence, and memory that this book offers.”
– Jerry Kang, Inaugural Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, UCLA, Distinguished Professor of Law and Asian American Studies
“A fascinating chronicle of America’s pre-eminent defender of civil rights. More than a history of the ACLU, Ellis Cose has written a concise history of the United States in the twentieth century as seen through the prism of the fundamental rights that it claims, and so often fails, to uphold. With entertaining portraits of some quixotic characters in the last hundred years of the fight for rights.”
–Carroll Bogert, president, The Marshall Project
“In Democracy, If We Can Keep It, Ellis Cose tells the story of the women and men who fought back when political speech became an imprisonable offense, when state and local authorities enabled violent mobs, and when courts ruled against peaceful protests and strikes — offering hard-boiled hope that we can transcend today’s tyranny too.
– Elizabeth Green, Co-founder & CEO, Chalkbeat
“In this engaging and important book, Ellis Cose tells the story of the ACLU’s century-long commitment to ensuring that America obey its own laws and that now faces its most pivotal battle yet–with a President who seems to think that the Bill of Rights is optional.”
—Richard Smith, president the Pinkerton Foundation, former CEO and editor-in-chief Newsweek magazine.
“Ellis Cose’s extraordinary exploration of the ACLU’s century of work is a timely and timeless read for all stewards of social justice. From cover to cover, Democracy, If We Can Keep It makes an air-tight case in defense of truth, free speech, and civic activism’s indispensable importance to democratic society. This book could not arrive at a more pivotal or necessary moment.”
– Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation
“Over the last century, it’s astonishing how closely the history of the ACLU tracks with the history of the United States. The Palmer Raids, the “Monkey Trial,” the Scottsboro Boys, Japanese internment camps, McCarthyism, FBI abuses, anti-terrorism abuses, Trump abuses–it’s all here in Ellis Cose’s brisk, compelling and urgent account of a vital champion of democracy.
–Jonathan Alter, author, HIS VERY BEST: Jimmy Carter, a Life
“For anyone who is concerned about the decline of civil liberties and seeks to understand the magnitude of what is at risk and what tactics have best preserved individual rights and freedoms in America, this book is an essential read. Through meticulous research and in-depth reporting, best-selling author and journalist Ellis Cose provides access to the fountain of moral courage, historically and present day, from which the ACLU has drawn on to battle homegrown repression.”
– Calvin Sims, President, International House, and former New York Times foreign correspondent
“The dramatic, turbulent, colorful, controversial and, in many cases, little known story of how it was the ACLU that responded to the urgent need to defend the Constitution and has persisted in that mission for the last hundred years, is told in a sweeping and engaging new book by Ellis Cose entitled Democracy, If We Can Keep It: The ACLU’s 100-Year Fight for Rights in America”
–The Los Angeles Review of Books
“In this comprehensive and even-handed history of the ACLU, journalist Cose (The Rage of the Privileged Class) details the organization’s inner workings as well as milestones in its mission to protect civil rights… Cose covers an impressive amount of ground ….[This] judicious account reveals just how integral the ACLU has been to the past century of American history.”
– Publishers Weekly
“Cose … draws on ACLU archives, interviews, and published sources to offer a thorough, balanced recounting of the organization’s often turbulent century. Throughout its history, it participated in some celebrated cases—e.g., the Scopes trial, testing Tennessee’s prohibition of the teaching of evolution; and the trial of the so-called Scottsboro boys, nine black youths charged with raping two white girls on a freight train in Alabama. The ACLU helped NAACP lawyers prep for arguments in Brown v. Board of Education but was otherwise not directly involved; in the 1960s, writes the author, “it had rarely been on the front lines” of racial issues. The Trump era has energized an organization pledged to remain nonpartisan. “As of early 2019,” writes Cose, “the ACLU had initiated 186 legal actions against the Trump administration, including 92 lawsuits.” In the 2018 midterms, it supported many ballot initiatives (and candidates) that had an impact on civil liberties. Cose traces the ACLU’s growth, management challenges, and philosophical conflicts, through which the organization has maintained itself as a strong defender of democracy. A well-researched chronicle of democratic activism.
“Cose … provides a comprehensive history of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from its founding to present day. While the ACLU’s chronology is most often identified by its cases rather than its leadership, this meticulously detailed volume describes changes the ACLU has experienced internally over the last century, including priorities, conflicts, and decision making… Cose’s book is an excellent choice for anyone seeking to understand the ACLU as an organization and for those wanting to explore how the fight for civil liberties has evolved and helped to shape the society we have today.”
Award-winning journalist Cose traces the ACLU’s participation in a series of key legal moments, from the Scottsboro Boys trial to Watergate to Bush v. Gore, alongside discussions of internal conflicts, strategies, and the challenge of balancing its ideals against the compromises demanded by political life. Cose ends by considering the challenges the ACLU faces in reconciling its historic commitment to free speech and a world shaped by surging white nationalism and fact-free political discourse. This brisk … history provides a helpful introduction to these important issues.”