Rutgers Oral History Archives

The # 15 Oral History Website in the World

  • ROHA Rutgers History
  • ROHA Women's History
  • ROHA Educational Resources
  • Like ROHA on Facebook
  • ROHA Military History
Previous Next

Cooper, Claire

Molly Graham: This is an interview with Claire Cooper. Today's date is October 13th, 2014. The interview is being conducted the ACLU Office on 39 Drumm Street in San Francisco, California. The interviewer is Molly Graham.Claire, could you just start by saying your name, title, and a little bit about what you do or have done?

Claire Cooper: My title when I was at the ACLU?

MG: Yes.

CC: Okay. My name is Claire Cooper and when I started at the ACLU, I actually started as a one-hundred-dollar-a-month semi volunteer at NYCLU, the New York Civil Liberties Union, which was one floor below the national office at 156 Fifth Avenue in New York City. For this one-hundred-dollar-a-month job, I really felt I hit the jackpot. I was so excited to be working for the American Civil Liberties Union. All I did, at first, was edit a little newsletter, called Civil Liberties in New York, and I poured my heart and soul into it because it was the ACLU after all. So I think I was making about ten cents an hour then; maybe a little less. Then the following year, I was hired on at the national office. At that point, I was a co-employee of the National organization and NYCLU. For a year or two I was editing the national newsletter, Civil Liberties, as well as Civil Liberties in New York, and also doing other little things--whatever made up a full time job. I'm pretty sure I was being paid eighty dollars a week at that point. I was able to live in New York on East 9th Street in 1966. When Aryeh Neier became executive director in 1970, he said, "What title do you want?" I said, "Well, how about editorial director? That sounds good to me." So I became the editorial director. I edited or wrote much of the written work that came out of the organization, other than, of course, legal materials; I'm not a lawyer. But almost everything else, I had a hand in and that was terrific.   The way I went about my job as editor of Civil Liberties, was to be in touch regularly with all of the state and regional affiliates. I felt that what we needed to do was to say what was going on all over the country and to show not just what was going on in terms of filing lawsuits or arguing cases in the Supreme Court, but to talk about how things were working out on the local level. I think that functionally, my job really was national gossip. Because I talked to most of the affiliate people--the affiliate directors or lawyers whoever was in charge--at least once a month and I also was able--and I don't want to make too much of this because I had no authority in this area, but I was able to say--if I found that something interesting was going on in Seattle for example, and I found that people in say Massachusetts were thinking about doing something similar, I was able to say "Well, look, they're already doing this in Seattle," and not get them together--that was completely their business, but sort of exchange information on what was going on around the country. That was thrilling because it was the '60s the '70s, and it was a time of tremendous social activism in the country, and the ACLU was growing like crazy. I think once we found out that we had a chapter that we hadn't known about. It may have been Mississippi--formed a chapter and they were functioning and they didn't even tell us. The people I worked with in the national office and a floor below at NYCLU, were the most dedicated, wonderful people you could want to work with. I often thought, "This job is worth doing if only for the conversations that we have in the corridors." There were new ideas all over the place. To say it was a time of ferment would be trite; everybody knows that, but it was a time of pain and joy that we experienced together. Some of those people became lifelong friends. Some are gone now, but a few of them are in my life today. We don't necessarily consider ourselves ACLU friends because our relationships have gone way beyond the ACLU, but that's when the friendships started. So, that's basically my life in the ACLU. I should tell you, although I love the ACLU, I never felt that the organization was our reason for being there. To me, what held us together was the ideals that we stood for and when you got down to it, the work that we were able to do, the difference that we were able to make. That's what I loved about the ACLU. That's what I'll always love about the ACLU. I don't care about organizations; I just don't.

MG: How come you were so excited to be involved with the ACLU in the beginning?

CC: Well, I'll tell you something personal. I loved my father more than any other individual on the world. He died in 1965 suddenly. The reason I loved him most was that he gave away everything. He was the most--not just public-spirited, but most socially conscious person in the world without even knowing it. The things he belonged to were, I think, The American Legion--some stuff that made me cringe, and also he was a Shriner and he was the Grand Chaplain of Masons for New Jersey. He would stop by the orphanage and pick up kids and take them to a ball game. He just couldn't think of enough things to do for people. Well, I thought it was the most beautiful way to live. However, I do not have that in me. What I do have is a desire to do what I believe is right. My father thought I was communist because I was a little left wing and I was reading Russian history and it made him unhappy. But I knew, when he died, that I could no longer work at things that I did not believe in. I had been working in advertising. I had a journalism degree, but it was from the University of Florida. You can't get a job at the New York Times with a degree from the University of Florida when you have been nowhere basically and you don't know anything. So I was working in advertising and public relations and I was editing freelance for Prentice Hall. That was the most responsible job I had had to date, but I was also going to NYU at night and getting a very slow Master's degree. I ran into some wonderful people there. After my father died--I had been living in Florida at the time--I moved back to New Jersey to be with my mother, although, I gathered in time, she didn't really want me there that much. I had lunch with the person who had been the chairman of my department at NYU and he said, "What are you going to do now?" I said, "I've applied for a job at the ACLU." He said, "Perhaps I can help you there, dear." I looked at him and he said, "I'm the chairman of the New York Civil Liberties Union." So that was it. The ACLU stood for not everything I believed in, but almost everything I believed in as a social value, the ACLU stood for that. So he pressed upon Aryeh to hire me for that little job at NYCLU, where Aryeh was the executive director. You know how sometimes everything you hope for most seems to come true? It meant all that much to me. So I started at NYCLU and they liked me well enough. I got along so well with Aryeh and Ramona Ripston--whom you may have heard of--that they made me a New York delegate to the next biennial conference and there I met a whole bunch of people. I was on the national staff, I think, within weeks after that. It was in the summer of 1966. So, next question?

MG: Well, I think I'm going to back up a little bit and then we'll come back to this period. I'm curious just about your family life and growing up, when and where you were born.

CC: I was born in Jersey City. Lived my entire childhood in a town called North Bergen, which is not in Bergen County, as everyone thinks. It's the Northern end of Hudson County. So, not knowing direction is probably the least thing that's wrong with this town. The library was ridiculous. It was two rooms and I had read everything in it that I wanted to by the time I was ten, or maybe younger. The schools were--we learned arithmetic really, really well. We learned English grammar really, really well and I don't knock those things; I think they're important, but we learned almost nothing else. We learned civics in ninth grade; that was just patriotic claptrap. I had a sixth grade teacher who taught us about "Copper-nickus," I remember--"Copper-nickus," and "Hera-cules." I a lot of love though, a loving family, particularly my father's family. They were all--and I didn't know the word at the time--they were all liberals. They were all giving people--except for my father, who was not a liberal, but just a very giving person. I went to a pretty good high school. I went to Weehawken High. Not that I learned a hell of a lot there, but I was co-editor of the school paper and I just kind of loved being in school. I felt I owned the place. Then, because they didn't have any real guidance counseling, I didn't know that there was a difference, one college against another. I thought you go to college [and] it could be anywhere. You could go to Paducah State. You could go to Harvard. It was all college. Nobody ever told me anything different. I decided that I was going to go to the University of Florida because it seemed far and that's where I went to school. Through inertia, that's where I stayed for four years. Kind of a culture shock going from North Bergen to North Florida, which was very deep South at the time. That culture shock turned out to be a great thing for me because I found out that not everybody thought the way I did, not everybody knew the same things that I knew. There were foreign students there [and] I got involved with them. My roommate was from Cuba. If you find out in your life that there is another culture, just one more that's different from your own, that changes you completely because then you figure out: "Well, there probably are at least three [different cultures] and maybe there are four and maybe there are a huge number of them." So the University of Florida changed me. It opened my eyes and I still have friends there. I stayed in touch, not with any feeling about the University as such. I couldn't care less, but it was an awakening for me to the fact that beliefs and cultures vary, even within the United States.

MG: In talking about your library and community growing up and the school, did you know then that it was "ridiculous" or is it only in looking back did you realize it was lacking?

CC: In retrospect. I loved going to school, even grammar school. I loved going there because there were people to talk to, there was stuff you could learn even if it was wrong or dumb, [and] there were some really good arithmetic and grammar teachers. I loved being in high school, but in retrospect--[I] remember that a friend's mother decided at one point that she should take a bunch of us to the Newark Library so we could see what a real library was like. Boy, that was different. It wasn't until I went to NYU that I started going to the New York Public Library regularly and it's not two rooms full of remainders.

MG: Just tell me a little bit more about the people you encountered in Florida, and what year was this again?

CC: I started at the University of Florida, Gainesville in 1960. The people I encountered at first were the kids in my dorm, most of whom knew less than I did. I had to explain to one of my dorm mates that France and Italy were different places and that they both had capitals. I swear it. After my first two years--well, for one thing, my Cuban roommate, the person who would become my Cuban roommate--she moved in and I got into a correspondence with her family in Cuba, who were educated people and they liked me better than they liked the other people in the dorm who were around because they thought at least I had a working brain, something might work out there. But very importantly, I took a job, a fifteen-hour a week job, at the university news bureau. The people who worked there were locals. They were town people. They were very involved, some of them in changing that community in a quiet way and they were doing it through the Methodist church. They introduced me to the University Methodist pastor, who was the most remarkable person I had ever met. He grew up in Alabama in a very segregated society. He learned all by himself apparently with nobody to tell him that segregation was wrong and that he had to do something about it. So he became a University [pastor]. The way the Methodists operated at the time was they would assign ministers to a church, for I think, about three years maximum, but he was so good at what he was doing, they left him alone. At the time I met him, he had been at the University Methodist Church for eighteen years. The first thing he did when he got to the church was to announce to his appalled congregation that it was going to be integrated. He gave me a subscription to--I'm Jewish, by the way and I stayed Jewish. I never worshipped at his church, but he gave me a subscription to a Methodist Magazine called Motive, which was just a magazine that explored ideas and explored faith and got me thinking about what mattered and why. His name was Thaxton Springfield and he died very young. I have a book of his sermons. They were collected after he died, but he was--apart from my father--the most influential person in my early life. The third person who really counted was my Chairman at NYU, and not just for the fact that he got me into the ACLU. He was technically teaching communications, but he started it with the Areopagitica and then we moved on to John Stuart Mill. [Editor's Note: John Milton wrote Areopagitica in 1644, arguing against Parliament's censorship laws.] He was a deeply thoughtful person. What he taught me was that education was no joke. You didn't just go in to bat around ideas, to argue both sides of the same subject and not give a damn; that education was more or less your life work, that thinking things through and deciding what was moral and what was not, that was where your mind should be at all times. I never knew that this guy was liberal, a civil libertarian, or anything. What he was teaching was that you must think, that if you are going to be a good person you are obligated to think. So we'd go to his class--I think class started about seven at night and then some of us, after class, would repair to the Howard Johnson's on Sixth Avenue in New York and we would talk about the class for hours. Just, "What did he mean by that?" We'd argue about who he really was even. But he became a very good friend of mine after he [retired]. We kept up a correspondence and visited each other in Vermont and San Francisco after I left New York for about twenty years until he died, and he's just terribly important to me.

MG: Why was the Methodist pastor so influential to you?

CC: Because I was sort of tortured in the University of Florida environment. I didn't know anything and I didn't know what bothered me, but I felt that the way I saw life being lived around me at times was profoundly silly. I didn't know if I believed in God. I just had to work it all out. I was still at the beginning. I had to work out what I thought. Somebody asked me, at the News Bureau where I worked. I think it must have at the time of the Caryl Chessman execution, [they asked me] "What do you think about the death penalty?" [Editor's Note: Caryl Chessman was a convicted sex offender who was executed at San Quentin prison in California in 1960. His execution divided the public over capital punishment. Chessman was the last United States citizen executed for a non-homicide crime.] I thought for about one second and I said, "No, I believe that's wrong. It's too big a thing for a person to do, for a state to do to take someone's life." I had never thought of it before. I had an hour with Thaxton every week in his study at the church and we'd just talk about whatever I was thinking. He was able to converse with me in terms that made sense or he'd give me something to read. He introduced me, I think, to Paul Tillich and to Martin Buber and to some of the other great religious thinkers of the time. He was certainly devoutly Methodist, but he also understood that I was not. Let me tell you something about Thaxton. He was asked to do some blockbusting in New Haven and I didn't even know the term at the time; I'm not sure he did. What he told me was that he was invited to move to New Haven and buy a house--somebody would buy a house for him and then Thaxton would sell the house to a black family. Thaxton said he would not do that because if he were going to do something like that, he had an obligation to live in that community himself and to see through the consequences. Another time, when I was already working for the ACL, I asked him whether Northern lawyers were doing more harm than good by handling individual civil rights cases in the South and then going home to safety. To my surprise, he told me that nothing in the South would change without Yankee help. So that's the kind of person he was and that's the kind of conversation that I was being exposed to for the first time, and maybe if you went to school in the Northeast or one of the good small colleges or a school in California, this seems ho-hum to you, but to me it was all new.

MG: Can you talk about context in which this is all taking place in the early 60's in the South?

CC: The first thing you have to understand is, as I said, north Florida was the South at that time. So, if you went on a bus, it was black people in the back and white people in the front. I figured out that if I took a seat in the front and the bus got crowded and an elderly black woman got on, that if I got up and said, "Ma'am." We called everybody "ma'am." Everybody was "ma'am" and "sir." "Ma'am, please have a seat," and she sat in the front, nobody was going to do a damned thing about it. So, in a way, I integrated two buses a day. It bothered me a lot, but there were black people who cleaned the dorms. An old black man swept our floors. I called him "Sir," and some of my dorm mates would laugh at me for that. That was the atmosphere; it was cruelly racist. Segregation was taken for granted. It wasn't as if we even talked about it. It was there. That's the way it was. You sang Dixie at the start of everything, which I thought was kind of a lively tune. I thought that was okay. But there were rebel flags around and it bothered me in a way that I couldn't even articulate. It felt bad. It felt unkind. It was just wrong. I did figure out in time that some of my journalism classmates were liberals. They organized a group to attend a rally for a particular Democratic candidate. I figured out he was a pretty liberal guy in retrospect. A few of my schoolmates--one was the daughter of a judge--were a lot more sophisticated than I was. Not in an activist way really, but they would go to a rally and they understood what was going on around them a hell of a lot better than I did. I just didn't know what was going on in the room. I really didn't. I was very ignorant.

MG: It sounds like you had a little bit of an intuition for the right things or the liberal perspective.

CC: I was my father's daughter. You were never unkind to people. You try to help people. And if you see people being treated badly, you intervene. I wasn't dumb; I was ignorant. I wasn't uncaring; I just couldn't figure it out.

MG: When did you start to feel like you were figuring it out?

CC: With Thaxton.

MG: Had religion played a role in your life previously? I know you grew up Jewish. So tell me a little bit about that.

CC: Yes, I grew up Jewish. I went to Hebrew school for four years and Sunday School before that. I could read Hebrew, which as you may know, is written backwards. I could read it like the wind. I could write it going from print to the script. What I couldn't do was understand it. We weren't taught what the words meant. We could read them, we could write them, [but] we could not understand them. So I was the whiz kid in my Hebrew school class, [but] I didn't know a damned thing. My family was Jewish and they considered themselves Orthodox, but they kind of invented it, which I think a lot of Jewish families do. You could do this, but you couldn't do that, but they were making it up. I wanted to believe in something, but I couldn't really believe in that. Still consider myself a Jew because I think I would be a coward not to. That was the culture I grew up in. I grew up with all the Jewish things around. Again, I didn't know that I didn't know anything about it. I thought this was it. You do some things. You don't do other things. They don't make sense. That's the way it is.

MG: How come you chose to study journalism?

CC: I had a tenth grade English teacher, [who] said to me, "You should write Little One." I said, "Okay. If I should write, I should write." My best friend at the time had a brother who was a journalist and she applied to be the editor of the school paper and my English teacher who was the advisor to the school paper said--I applied to the school paper, but my confidence was such that I applied to be the advertising manager--and she said, "No. You need to be a writer." So that started it. We were a good paper. It was laughable by today's standards, but I heard that a paper we put out in our senior year was a first place winner in the Columbia scholastic press competition the following year. I don't know anything more about that, but conceivably we wrote well, we did an interesting layout, we drove the printer crazy, but we didn't take on anything controversial. That was the '50s. You didn't take on anything controversial.

MG: Was that starting to change in the '60s?

CC: I would think. It was starting to change everywhere. In 1965 or so, I went with my brother and sister-in-law to a concert somewhere in an open-air venue in the city--may have been Lewisohn Stadium or something like that. [Editor's Note: Philanthropist Adolph Lewisohn financed the construction of Lewisohn Stadium on the campus of the City College of New York in 1915. Many famous performers, musicians, and operas were performed here until the stadium closed in 1966.] It spontaneously turned into a demonstration of sorts. The songs that were being sung were songs of the movement and the people in the stands were acting out. I was surprised by it. I was really surprised that that was going on. I was so backward that when Kennedy ran against Nixon, I was undecided until the last minute. Thank God I voted for Kennedy. But in New Jersey, the Republican Senator was Clifford Case, who was great, I thought. [Editor's Note: Senator Clifford P. Case served as a US Senator from New Jersey from 1954 to 1979. Earlier, he had represented New Jersey's 6th Congressional District from 1945 and 1953 and served as president for the Fund for the Republic from 1953 to 1954.] [Jacob] Javits was the senator in New York. [Editor's Note: Jacob Javits was a Republican member of the United States Senate and was regarded as a political moderate.] I thought these seemed like good enough people. They seemed responsible and reasonable.

MG: Was that the first election you voted in?

CC: My first vote was for Kennedy, yes.

MG: How did that feel?

CC: It felt like I probably made the right choice. There was a hairline of difference between them. I don't get really excited about politicians. I got more excited about Obama than I should have, but I don't get swept away by institutions or by bigwigs. I want to withhold judgment and I always did, until I see what it is.

MG: Before you graduated from college, did you have a sense of what you wanted to do next?

CC: I had a sense that I needed to get a job, and I quickly found out when I arrived back in New Jersey, I wasn't going to get a job at a New York newspaper with a degree from the University of Florida, so I figured a job in an advertising and PR firm would be good. It would use my skills and maybe if I was in advertising, I could do some drawing. I like to draw, too. That's how I dumb I was, that in an ad firm, [I thought] you could do both. So I went to work for a really small advertising and PR firm on East 39th Street and it was holy hell. I was writing about things that I didn't have any idea what they were. I was writing ads for forklift trucks and I didn't know what a forklift truck did. Did it lift forks? Did it fork lifts? I had no idea. The guy who owned the place was crazy. He was a drunk. He'd have me design an ad in the morning and then he'd come back from lunch drunk and he would cancel the ad. So from there I went to Prentice Hall, which was better. I was in a department of Prentice Hall that operated out of an office on Fifth Avenue. I was editing five little magazines, little publication that went to people who worked in the offices, and it told them how to wear your gloves or whatever because we wore gloves then. You couldn't go anywhere without gloves. Short sleeves, long gloves; long sleeves, short gloves. When I was out with clients at the advertising PR firm, I had to wear a hat and you cannot believe how bad I look in a hat. You had to drink and I don't really drink. The whole culture was awful and I was intensely unhappy. Unhappy enough that I decided I would move back to Florida where at least I had been a person of sorts and I got a job there. My first job was editing a weekly newspaper in a town outside of Tampa. That also was insanely bad. I figured out after just a short time, that the paper's owners were promising favorable coverage to people who bought ads. So I couldn't stay there. Then I went to work for the hospital and welfare board of Hillsborough County, which is Tampa. That place turned out to be dysfunctional. I was writing, editing, producing all their brochures, nurse recruitment and that kind of thing, which was okay. I put out the internal newsletter and the photo I picked for the cover one month was of a black child with his leg in traction--because he had a big smile on his face. The director of the personnel department, my boss, called me in and said, "This is a negro child." I said "Isn't it wonderful?" I didn't know what he was driving at. Well, for some reason, soon after, the personnel director left the building one day, telling no one that he wouldn't be back. So we were all looking around for a couple of weeks wondering whether anybody was in charge here, and nobody was. I figured well, there's nobody here to give me a raise; I'm leaving, too. I got a job at a little magazine publishing company in Fort Lauderdale. All of this was going on within the space of a year, three different jobs. Went to Fort Lauderdale, was editing terrible little magazines in an authoritarian, demeaning atmosphere. Not quite crazy, but a little bit vicious in that atmosphere. Then my father died and I couldn't be away. I just had to go back and be with my mother. I was devastated and I couldn't stay away from home.

MG: As you entered the working world, did you get a sense that your options or your path might be limited because you are a woman?

CC: No, I caught on to the woman thing really quite late, as I caught onto everything quite late. I felt they were going to be limited because in a way that I couldn't even describe to you, I felt quite limited. I felt as if I were in a small box and was never going to be able to bust out of it. There's a line in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. Have you ever read him? He was a Jesuit who was a tortured man all of his life--and the last line of one of his poems is: "Send my roots rain." That was something I silently said to myself over and over. "Send my roots rain." I know I can do more, but how do I take the first step? How do I get out of here? I literally had to get out of there and did. I did.

MG: Can I ask how your father died?

CC: He had a heart attack.

MG: And then how was your life different after that?

CC: Well my life after that was basically the ACLU if you'd like a neat transition. I started working at the ACLU, and one of the reasons I felt I hit the jackpot was I knew that this was a place where I could do work that mattered, where there were going to be lively minds and lively conversations all over the place. I was going to meet people all over the country. When I lived in New York, my best friends were ACLU people all over the country. I had a great friend in Denver, a great friend in Kentucky,great friends in Albuquerque, Chicago, [and] San Francisco.

MG: How were you making those friends?

CC: They would come in for board meetings. We had board meetings I guess, every second month, maybe it was every month; I don't remember. But they were board members or they were staff members who would have to come in for board meetings. There was a time toward the end of my ACLU career when I was flying to Denver for weekends because I liked being with my ACLU friends there and it was cheap and it got me out of New York. Living in New York, I was thinking, "If I could only knock down of few of these buildings and see the sky, it would be terrific." Central Park was dangerous. So you'd go to Washington Square Park and you'd sit like this with your arms [at your side] because it was so crowded. If you wanted to read a book, you'd turn the pages this way. There was just no space around. I wanted to live in a house with a tree. I really wanted a tree. I remember telling Art Kobler, who was the board member from Seattle--he said, "Why don't you move to Seattle? You can have a tree there." I moved to Denver where an ACLU friend put me up for a few weeks. An ACLU friend in San Francisco would have done the same for me if Denver hadn't worked out. I had four trees in Denver.

MG: Before we get there, what did you know about the ACLU before you started working there?

CC: Just what it stood for.

MG: And could you say what that was at the time?

CC: It was the Bill of Rights. It was everything in the Bill of Rights, which to me sounded like a complete social program. That was really all you needed was the Bill of Rights.

MG: And tell me a little bit more about the work you were doing at the ACLU, your day-to-day responsibilities.

CC: Well, it changed a lot over the course of my time there. In the morning, I might have on my desk a funding appeal that Aryeh wanted to send out and I would edit that. I might work on Civil Liberties for a while. There was a time when Aryeh first came in that he wanted to put out a bunch of mini grant proposals to finance projects. He put together one-page proposals and arranged meetings between the legal staff and foundation directors to pitch the proposals. Overnight, I edited five or ten mini proposals. It was amateur stuff, but it got our foot in the door. I, at one point, worked on model legislation. I traveled. I witnessed some of the major trials and some of the major appellate arguments. I went down to the Supreme Court for a couple of cases. I went down to a very long trial in Alabama on treatment of the mentally disabled in Alabama institutions. It was a very big case and a very big win--long trial before Frank Johnson, one of the giants of the Southern bench and it was a tremendous experience. Not just ACLU, but a couple of mental health rights organizations were in on that. If I decided that I wanted to write a story about the beginning of the gay rights movement, I might go to New Orleans and find a story there, or I might set up a story and then go and report it. I went to Kent State after the killings there. It was a wonderful job. It was a mixture of all kinds of stuff. ... I had a big office overlooking 40th Street.

MG: Can you give me examples of the big cases or trials you witnessed or reported on?

CC: Wyatt v. Stickney, which set standards of care for people confined to state mental institutions. Vincent McGee v. United States, in which a divinity student and conscientious objector was convicted of draft law violations. In both of those cases I sat through court proceedings. More commonly, I wrote about court filings and the situations and people behind the cases. We won, and I wrote about many landmark Supreme Court decisions. Loving v. Virginia in 1967 struck down laws banning interracial marriage. In re Gault the same year determined due process rights of juveniles. Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969 struck down sedition laws. Tinker v. Des Moines that year, determined the free speech rights of public school students. Lee v. Washington in 1968 banned racial segregation in prisons.

MG: You talked a lot about how you felt very ignorant but you did have a sense of right and wrong and the ACLU helped clarify or congeal some of these ideals for you.

CC: The issue of women's rights came up, and initially I thought, "Well, this is just going to take juice out of the movement for equal rights for blacks. This was really going to hurt the move towards integration of black people and this might be a mistake." What I didn't realize was that my life was very powerfully controlled by discrimination against women. Our function in life was to support men. Off and on for eleven years, I had a boyfriend whom I was crazy about and I couldn't figure out why I didn't want to marry him. He was looking for someone to be the woman behind the man. Something told me I didn't want to be that. But that's what most women were. They supported what the men did. It took me a long time to realize why I was uneasy with this idea. I think that on the other stuff, I was pretty much on the right side, even as a child. My best friend and I had a debate in eighth grade about Indians versus pioneers, and I knew right away I was Indians; she would have to take pioneers. I leaned toward the more liberal people in the ACLU. There were big internal battles during my years there. The residue of McCarthyism was about ankle deep, maybe knee deep, in the organization at that time. There were people who felt that our first job was to be protective of the ACLU's reputation, and then there were those of us who thought it wasn't the organization that counted, but it was what we did that counted. So that played out in the board and it played out in the staff. There were people who actually believed that the policy making function of the ACLU was the chief thing that it should concentrate on and that we should file amicus briefs to state our views and we should put out press releases and tell everybody what we thought. Then there were those of us who felt we might do quite a bit more than that. There were also people--and I think this is maybe a more respectable debate that was going on at first--there were people particularly on the board who felt that our chief function was to support freedom of speech and due process, that if we ensured the channels for change were kept open, then the rest would take care of itself. Others among us thought we should push change along.

MG: You talked about this a little bit before we started recording. Can you say more about how structural history of the ACLU changed quite a bit in complicated ways, especially [because] there were more affiliates and chapters.

CC: Here's the most important thing that happened. We used to have twice a year, what was called a "plenary board meeting". Just before my time, the affiliates gained some representation on the national board and other people would have to tell you about that. When I came in, we were having these plenary board meetings twice a year, and that was when the affiliate representatives to the board would come into town. The rest of the year, the board was a group of people who were pretty old--although they seem younger to me today--old, very rich for the most part, in some cases extremely accomplished and wonderful people, but in other cases, just old and rich. They would sit around making the policy. When the plenary meetings took place, you had people coming in from all over the country. You had younger people coming in. You had more activist people coming in. You had people who didn't have that same feeling of awe about the national organization or its leaders. So the big change that happened--and I can't put a year on this--was that every board meeting became a plenary meeting. The affiliate people weren't just representatives; they were full-fledged board members. If the member from Mississippi disagreed with a member from Manhattan, their votes were equal. That changed everything.

MG: How?

CC: Well, a segment of the old board at first was very, very antsy--and this was part of the holdover from the McCarthy era--about our getting involved in anti-Vietnam War type activity. Very unhappy about flag burning, draft card burning. I think partly because they felt that this was going to show that we were not patriotic and we were so really afraid of being branded unpatriotic in the ACLU. I think I may have lost track of where I was going with that.

MG: How things changed.

CC: Well, the younger people coming in, most of the affiliate people didn't care about that, and they really didn't care if the ACLU had to stand up for war protestors. They felt we could handle it and we could. We really could. The Nixon impeachment was maybe the next big step. I remember that board meeting and I remember how nervous many of us were about it because if you changed a word in the proposed policy, we would be supporting just study of the idea of impeachment and we wanted to do more. We wanted to impeach the son of a bitch. With the board vote to support impeachment, all kinds of money started coming into the ACLU. The ACLU became sort of the voice of impeachment. It became something that ordinary people could send money to in order to make impeachment happen. I think we got too much money too fast. I think that we started taking on programs that ultimately we couldn't afford and that's the point at which I left. I can't say I left because I disagreed with the direction we were going in. I believed in all our program, though I thought that we were taking on too much too fast. But I left because I felt that I had just been there too long. I'd been on the national staff for about eight and a half years and the NYCLU staff for a couple of years. I was a writer who had been writing mainly for people who already agreed with me. My background was in journalism and I felt that I wanted to get out there and just start reporting. I didn't want to work for the organization anymore. I didn't see a role for myself in the direction it was taking. People were coming in who could do parts of my job better than I could. I had been designing fundraising letters for example. Well, we got in somebody who was a professional for that and it was better. I wanted to go into the newspaper business. I wanted to be responsible for myself and my own reporting. I wanted to be able to explore everything that there was to talk about; everything there was to write about. I think I started off as a lousy reporter. Even with a journalism degree and a communications degree, I think I was a pretty lousy reporter. Over the course of time, I became a better reporter.

MG: How did you get better?

CC: I got better by shedding preconceptions. I got better by listening more than talking. I stopped being an advocate. I believed in the same things, but I internalized the important principle in journalism that you don't write about yourself, that you don't write out of your own head, that journalism is a window; it is not a mirror. I internalized that and then I became a good reporter.

MG: Were there any ways in which your work with the ACLU informed your journalism?

CC: Every way.

MG: Tell me about that.

CC: I sought out ACLU-friendly newspapers. An ACLU friend in Denver got me a job interview there at the Rocky Mountain News where I covered government and courts. When that job went bad, I phone the ACLU lobbyist in Sacramento and I said, "I remember that you told me a long time ago, when I was out there visiting you, that the Sacramento Bee was a good paper. Are they still?" He said, "Yes. Still are." So I went and got a job at the Bee. The Bee really was a terrific paper, in terms of integrity, honor, the staff's freedom to do the right thing.

MG: These two newspapers that you worked for, were they excited about or skeptical of your work with the ACLU because sometimes--

CC: The Rocky Mountain News was very accepting of it at first. After all, the ACLU connection got me my job there, but the place changed drastically and a new regime were not at all pleased with me. At the Bee, the ACLU connection may have helped, but I had a good portfolio of stories to show them. The managing editor who hired me in 1978 still tells me that he liked my resume. So I think I was hired on merit at the Bee.

MG: Are you able to say how the ACLU changed during the decade you worked there?

CC: The board changed dramatically. It became more representative of the country. It became, I think some people back then would have said, radicalized. I don't think that we had a whole lot of radicals in our midst. We did have some people who were in the organization because it was, believe it or not, chic at the time. When we came out against the Vietnam War, when we came out against the draft, people came into board and staff positions who weren't going to stay long because they were motivated by narrow causes and the ACLU's vision is not narrow. My good friend Henry Schwarzschild referred to them as technicians. He meant they were adept at their assignments, but not deep thinkers, and they seemed to work in silos.

MG: What would you point to as some successes or your proudest achievements during your time with the ACLU?

CC: My achievement was to get people talking to each other, to be able to tell the staff director in Florida what I had heard from the staff director in Maryland. I was able to spot and report trends. I traveled where I thought the stories were and wrote what I thought were pretty decent stories. I'm reasonably confident now that they were amateurish and ACLU-biased because that's what I knew. That's who I was at the time.

MG: How is that communication between affiliates functioning today?

CC: I don't know.

MG: Part of this project is focusing on how things have changed since 9/11, and you haven't been as involved, but can you say how you've seen the ACLU change since then?

CC: Not since 9/11, no. I should point out that I was on the ACLU board in Colorado for a couple of years. I was covering federal courts in Denver at the time, for The Rocky Mountain News. I got a call at five one morning, saying that the case of Gary Gilmore--do you know who that is? Gary Gilmore was the first person executed after a long moratorium, a long national moratorium. He was executed in what year, would've been mid '70s or late '70s. [Editor's Note: Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad on January 17. 1977.] I got a call saying that the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was going to be having a hearing at something like six AM. It was a winter day, I remember. I got a call saying the case would be heard in Denver. I got to court and I realized I knew the lawyers, that the lawyers were people I had worked with at the ACLU. So, I covered the hearing and Gilmore was executed before I got out of the courthouse. I went to my office and wrote my story and quit the Colorado ACLU board that day because you can't be covering yourself. My city editor had been telling me all along that I shouldn't be on the ACLU board, and that morning I realized in a very stark way, that I could not be on the ACLU board and do my job. But I've been an ACLU member for fifty years. The ACLU is in my will.

MG: What was your role on the board while you served?

CC: I was a pain in the ass. I think I was probably pretty arrogant. I was telling the people in Denver: "Well, this is the way we do it and this is what we really should do." Nobody should ever do that. I was just a member. I was one of the liberal members on the Colorado board, which wasn't bad. It was moderate, but I was on the liberal side of it. I guess I wasn't as bad as I think I was. Some of those people are still my friends and I don't think they would ever have been if I had been awful, but I was kind of arrogant.

MG: How long did you stay with the Sacramento Bee?

CC: Sacramento Bee '78 to through 2006, twenty-eight years?

MG: So you were a reporter in 2001?

CC: Yes.

MG: Do you remember--?

CC: Oh, gosh. Yes.

MG: Are you able to talk about that?

CC: Well, sure. My clock radio goes off to NPR about quarter to seven. It was the first thing I heard. Quarter to seven would have been quarter to ten in New York. It was before the second tower was hit. I was just lying there dazed thinking, "Is this some kind of horrible nightmare or is this really happening?" I still hold my breath when I turn on NPR [National Public Radio] in the morning. I could tell you my personal experience that way, but I don't really know what it has to do with the ACLU.

MG: I'm curious. This is not just about the ACLU, but also about you and your life, but I don't want you talking about anything you don't want to talk about.

CC: No, I can talk about it. I was working out of the federal courthouse in San Francisco, but it was closed down on 9/11, and I spent the day playing Ray Charles and worrying about a young cousin who worked in the World Trade Center on--I think--the 104th floor. I learned that evening that she got out. I made it into the courthouse the next day and had to get up to the pressroom, which is on the 18th floor. The elevators weren't running. So I huffed up to the 18th floor. That was kind of scary, being in the federal courthouse in San Francisco on that day. The atmosphere was tense and somber for a long time. Security measures became oppressive at times, but that was understandable. One night, the Federal Protection Service detained the AP reporter--the dean of our little press corps, who was merely working late. A federal judge vouched for the reporter. The US Marshal's service still requires reporters who have offices in the courthouse to show their IDs every day and pass through metal detectors. This alters the work atmosphere.

MG: When did you know that the aftermath of 9/11 would start to threaten our civil liberties?

CC: Well, I'm not dumb. It wasn't the first time our civil liberties had been threatened. It hit home when a neighbor, who is a liberal guy, told me at a neighborhood garage sale that he would be willing to give up his rights for the sake of safety. I told him I wouldn't be willing to give up his rights. It was a very ACLU moment.

MG: What are you doing as a semi-volunteer for the ACLU?

CC: What am I doing for the ACLU? I'm not doing anything for the ACLU now. I edited a report on the economic costs of capital punishment for the San Francisco office a few years ago and did a little work for national before that. The main thing I do is I'm a member of the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation. It is the state bar commission that evaluates potential judicial nominees for the governor. I'm putting a lot of work into it because judicial nominations are important. I do a lot of work in the neighborhood on earthquake preparedness, and other projects that come up from time to time. We have a small group that's trying to do everything we can think of to prepare the neighborhood for an earthquake. I organize an annual block party for National Night Out. We have a terrible little neighborhood newspaper, but somebody's got to write for it. So, whenever I can, I write for that. I'm a journalism judge in an annual competition run by the Society of Professional Journalists, and I occasionally do paid freelance work. Those are my main activities. I'm physically fit and have been for about fifteen years no. I get around the neighborhood. I do some gardening. I do a lot of gardening. I do a lot of walking and talking to people along my route. I was over here at Ocean Beach a couple of days ago, walking in the surf. Four surfers and I got whistled out by beach patrol. I walk a mile to the post office almost every day. I walk to the bookstore. Although, our bookstore just closed last week. But my main activities are judicial evaluation and neighborhood preparedness and journalism judging. That's enough. It keeps me busy.

MG: I didn't ask you sort of how the rest of your life unfolded. If you had a family, things like that.

CC: No, I never worked it out that I could both do a job and have a family, and there was never the right person, really. I had a series of attachments, but I never could see marriage. I was intensely involved in my work. I've been productive. I've learned. I've met wonderful people.

MG: What haven't I asked you about concerning your life, your career, or how the ACLU has impacted your life?

CC: I'm a civil libertarian. Always will be. I don't think that the ACLU gets everything right; never did. It has impacted me in terms of the people I know to this day. Some of the people whom I count today among my best friends are people whom I knew back then. I won't say it opened the world of thinking to me, but it helped me a lot. It allowed me to work in a way that used my mind. It allowed me to work at what I believed in, and that is an enormous privilege. It gave me not a complete value system certainly, but it gave me a value system in terms of the civic side of things, in terms of my obligations to my community, which is very important to me, and it gave me lasting friendships. I can no longer say it's who I am, but it's still a big part of me.

MG: Sure. Well is there anything else I'm missing?

CC: Sure, everything. It's fifty years of the ACLU.

MG: Well, the great thing about technology and the world that we live in is if there are things we're missing from today that we think of later or when I listen back to this and have more questions, I can get in touch with you by email or phone and we can clear up those things.  Thank you so much for taking the time. This has really been such a treat. You've been a lot of fun to talk to.

CC: Look. If there's something that comes up that you think that I can answer, I'm more than happy to. The years I was there--I started at NYCLU in 1965 and I was on the national staff in '66 to mid '74. Then I was on the Colorado board until about '76. I was close to a lot of people around the country for years after that. Now, I have only a few friends from that time unfortunately. Some of them, it turned out frankly, I didn't even really like. A big part of my life. I'm going to be a lifelong member. I'm never going to agree with everything. Never did, never could.

MG: Well, thank you so much for taking the time today. Again, this has been a treat.

CC: Thank you.

--------------------------------------------END OF INTERVIEW--------------------------------------------

Reviewed by Molly Graham 6/10/2015

Featuring 871 life-course oral histories

Over 32,000 pages of fully text-searchable transcripts

All content is available to students, teachers, and scholars free of charge for educational purposes

The Rutgers Oral History Archives seeks to record the narratives of:

~ Alumni and/or New Jersey residents who served during times of conflict

~ People with a story to tell about New Jersey's rich social and cultural history

~ Men and women who helped shape the history of Rutgers University

 

Rutgers Oral History Archives

A Rutgers History Department Affliated Center 


This website and all content

Copyright © 2016 ROHA

 

Contact Us

Rutgers Academic Building
15 Seminary Place
West Wing, Room 6105

New Brunswick, NJ 08901


848-932-0454
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.