"When I first came to work for the American Civil Liberties Union," Lea Gilmore is saying, "my friends would give me this really strange look and say things such as, 'Why would you want to work for them?'
"The perception," continues Ms. Gilmore, "was that the ACLU is a white organization focused on white concerns and that if I wanted to work for social justice I should work for black social justice."
"So how did you answer?" I say.
"Well, the real answer is that civil rights and civil liberties have no color," says Ms. Gilmore, speaking passionately now. "Social justice has no color. The more I read up on the ACLU and what they stand for, the more I came to realize that their beliefs reflect my beliefs."
Some might be surprised to hear that. Ms. Gilmore is a 29-year-old black woman, a graduate of Morgan State University, and the mother of two young boys. When I spoke with her last week, she was wearing a tiny silver cross around her neck. Her husband is a Baptist minister. Yet, Ms. Gilmore is assistant director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, whose defense of First Amendment rights causes some blacks to perceive it as anti-church and pro-Ku Klux Klan.
"People see us as an organization made up of people who are white and male and liberal," agrees Ms. Gilmore. "And it is true that that describes the majority of our membership. But this is an association for everyone. And it is a fact that the constitutional rights of African Americans are just as important as those of the majority population. If it takes an organization like ours to stand next to our traditional civil rights organizations, so much the better for us."
What Ms. Gilmore doesn't say is that sometimes an outside organization can do things for the black community that the traditional civil rights community cannot.
Two lawsuits filed recently by the ACLU of Maryland may have the most profound effect on black Marylanders since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 desegregation order in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.
In December, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court charging that Maryland's method of school funding systematically deprives poor children of the "adequate education" guaranteed by the state constitution.
A month later, the ACLU alleged in U.S. District Court that city officials deliberately adopted public housing policies that solidified segregated residential patterns in Baltimore and the surrounding counties.
If successful, each lawsuit could dramatically improve the quality of life for the city's black poor. The cases could have political implications as well. For instance, the courts could order Maryland to direct new resources to inner city schools even though the prevailing wisdom in Annapolis is that the city must learn to better use the resources it has. And the courts could force federal housing officials to open public housing opportunities in suburban counties that currently refuse to accept public housing.
Ms. Gilmore says the ACLU "consulted with" local civil rights groups, which declined to join the suits for a combination of financial, philosophical and political reasons.
For instance, Rodney Orange, president of the city branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told me that his organization decided to take "no position" on the housing suit because members felt it focused unfairly on city officials. The NAACP and several other groups planned to join the ACLU's suit over school funding, but have held off for political reasons. (The mayor, the superintendent of schools and the city housing commissioner are black and have strong ties to local civil rights organizations.)
"The mayor had hoped to address the situation through the political process and asked us to hold up," says Mr. Orange, noting that last year a state commission was studying the funding issue. "But of course, the legislature saw fit to do nothing. Right now, we feel the ACLU suit is the appropriate avenue."
Ms. Gilmore says she understands the political pressures other groups face. And that is exactly why neither civil rights nor civil liberties should be the exclusive province of any one organization.