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Ragtime celebrates Boston's role as a champion of equal rights and the arts

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  September 28, 2012 05:00 AM

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Boston has always been center stage for American history. So it's both timely and inspiring that the historic Strand Theatre will celebrate its revival with the opening of Fiddlehead Theatre's production of the Tony award-winning musical Ragtime (Sept. 28-October 7).

The musical is set in the early 1900s--the same era as Strand Theatre's opening--and celebrates in word and song America's struggle for equal rights for women, blacks, immigrants, and workers.

It's also fitting that the Fiddlehead Theatre Company chose to honor the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with its Ragtime production in Boston. After all, the ACLU of Massachusetts has for more than 90 years been at the forefront of America's struggle to realize equal justice for all. (I know this because, among other things, I have been the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts for nearly a decade).

Less well known is the role that Massachusetts and Boston played in the formation of the ACLU itself. Roger Baldwin, who founded the ACLU, was from Massachusetts. And just months after the Strand Theatre opened, a group of concerned citizens met in the Beacon Hill living room of Mrs. Margaret Shurcliff, a supporter of women's suffrage and peace, to form the nation's first ACLU affiliate.

At the time, America was gripped by the fear that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia would spread to the United States. In Boston, these fears were stoked when the Boston police rank and file went out on strike in 1919, seeking recognition for their trade union and improvements in wages and working conditions.

Weeks later, U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer began rounding up and in some cases deporting so-called radicals--targeting peace demonstrators, artists, labor organizers, people of color and immigrants. Thousands were arrested without warrants and without regard to constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure. Those arrested were brutally treated and held in horrible conditions.

In the face of these egregious civil liberties abuses, a small group of Americans--largely social reformers, clergy and conservative lawyers--decided to take a stand, and thus was born the American Civil Liberties Union. Ninety years later, the ACLU remains our nation's premier defender of equal rights, due process and freedom of expression for all.

Against that historic backdrop, when Ragtime opens this Friday night, Bostonians are in for a treat. Not only will they enjoy a fantastic musical, they also will celebrate the historic role that Boston has played--and will continue to play--in realizing the American dream of equality, liberty and justice for all.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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