Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases
(2020) is a nonfiction book edited by bestselling American authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. This collection brings together 40 preeminent modern writers as they each explore a pivotal case in the history of the American Civil Liberties Union. Each piece offers a glimpse into the history of one of the nation's most important institutions and its crucial role as a prominent guardian of liberty and equality.
The volume opens with an introduction by Chabon and Waldman. They discuss the significance of the ACLU's work and how imperative—if not more
imperative—the group's work is today. With freedom and human rights under attack from the highest offices in the land, the very places meant to protect
basic civil liberties, the ACLU lawyers are the first in the trenches, the first to file lawsuits against governments, institutions, and businesses to ensure that the rule of law is followed. They are the Davids that take on the Goliaths, the everyday citizens who utilize their rights to make certain others' rights are equal and intact.
A foreword by journalist David Cole follows. Cole provides a succinct overview of the history of the ACLU and its landmark work from its earliest days in 1920—when the Bill of Rights didn't even apply to individual state governments, just to the federal government—all the way up to the fight for marriage equality and the ongoing plight of immigrants. It's safe to say that the ACLU has been front and center at the biggest human rights advances in modern American history.
The authors of the essays that comprise Fight of the Century
interpret their respective cases in different ways. Some choose to recount the circumstances surrounding the cases in journalistic detail, with a chronology of events, the ACLU's work on the case, and the subsequent court rulings. Others take a more personal view, describing how the specific events discussed or rights being championed impacted the author's life. And still others take a contrarian view, challenging the ACLU's reasoning or positions on certain issues.
In "No More Flags," novelist Viet Than Nguyen looks at the 1931 case of Stromberg v. California, in which the Supreme Court struck down a California ban on red flags—thought to be a symbol of communism—as such a ban is unconstitutional and a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments. Nguyen delves into the subject of flags as powerful symbols, especially how flags figured into the Vietnamese refugee community of his youth. The yellow Vietnamese flag was a symbol of a lost Vietnam, fallen from glory, while a red Vietnamese flag was a symbol of the destructive communist forces that overtook the country, leading to its downfall. The two flags polarized many in the Vietnamese community, showing where one's allegiance resided. What Stromberg v. California did was not assert that one of these positions was inherently correct or just or American, but that there was room
for varying positions, no matter how on- or off-the-mark the accompanying viewpoints. It didn't sanction truth; it underscored plurality, saying, essentially, that there is room here for more than one point of view.
Chabon and Waldman both contribute individual essays to this collection. Chabon explores the landmark obscenity case brought against James Joyce's Ulysses
and how it shook up the literary establishment, the publishing trade, and the nation as a whole. Waldman studies the 1975 case of O'Connor v. Donaldson, in which the ACLU successfully advocated for the position that it was unconstitutional to confine a nonthreatening or non-dangerous individual who could survive on their own in freedom; this was a landmark case in mental health law that determined that a mental illness diagnosis alone could not justify the State confining anyone indefinitely.
The many other celebrated authors who contributed to this collection include Michael Cunningham, who looks at Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, a Supreme Court case that found private organizations could exclude certain groups from public events if those groups presented a message contrary to organizing group's; Ann Patchett, who discusses Edwards v. California, which struck down a California ban that prohibited bringing an indigent person into the state; Yaa Gyasi, who examines Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which struck down racial segregation in public schools; Aleksandar Hemon, who writes about the impact of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that ended bans on interracial marriage; Andrew Sean Greer, who investigates United States v. Windsor, a case that determined that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional; and Louise Erdrich, who takes on the ACLU v. the United States Department of Defense, a case that highlights the abuse and torture of prisoners in overseas US detention centers.Fight of the Century
includes brief biographical information about each of the contributors.