Officially defunct since it was absorbed by the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1998, the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (NECLC) was founded in 1951 by Corliss Lamont, I.F. Stone, Paul Lehmann, James Imbrie, Henry Pratt Fairchild, E. Franklin Frazier, and H.H. Wilson. Its declared Statement of Purpose was to “[pursue a] single-minded goal, through test cases involving freedom of speech, press, religion, and the right of people to assemble or to travel freely, to remain silent in the face of an inquisition, and to refuse to fight an illegal and immoral war. [And] above all, … the right to dissent.” NECLC says that its genesis “in the early days of the Cold War” was sparked by an impulse “to protect the rights of our citizens to hold unorthodox views and to associate for the purposes of opposing official Cold War policies, and to defend the victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee against political interrogation and repression.”
From its inception as an ally of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), NECLC made clear that there would be no exclusion of Communists from its own membership (in contrast to the American Civil Liberties Union, which at that time insisted that its officers take an oath that they were not Communists.) Consequently, NECLC’s ranks were filled with Communist Party members whose primary mission was to represent individuals, groups, and ideals hostile to, and in many cases seeking the destruction of, the United States. Moreover, NECLC’s client list was heavy with war resisters and accused Communist spies.
NECLC’s first Chairman and Vice Chairman were Harvey O’Connor and Corliss Lamont, respectively; both were veteran allies of the Communist Party. NECLC leadership in the 1950s included both “hard” fellow travelers like Lamont (whose positions were difficult to separate from those of the Communist Party), and softer ones like Clark Foreman (an NECLC Director who strayed from the party line on some matters).
NECLC’s first landmark court victory was in the 1958 Kent v. Dulles case, which dealt with the question of the Passport Department’s authority to grant security clearance to suspected Communists who wished to travel outside the U.S. The issue of concern for the U.S. government was whether such individuals might, during their travels, seek to meet with representatives of groups or governments hostile to the United States. Specifically, the case involved Rockwell Kent, who wanted to visit Europe but was denied permission due to his Communist Party affiliations. NECLC’s input helped convince the court that the right to travel was a liberty of which U.S. citizens could not be deprived, regardless of their political affiliations or intentions.
NECLC also took part, unsuccessfully, in an attempt to reverse the 1950 perjury conviction of Soviet spy Alger Hiss. Much of the legal work of Hiss’s appeals was assisted by an NECLC offshoot, the National Emergency Civil Liberties Foundation, Inc.
For decades, NECLC’s primary counsel was the law firm of Rabinowitz, Boudin, and Standard. Partners Victor Rabinowitz and Leonard Boudin were both secretly members of the CPUSA. (Rabinowitz was identified as such during Senate testimony in the early 1960s, and Boudin in a 1980 defense memorandum based on declassified summaries of secret FBI files on the terrorist group the Weather Underground.) NECLC’s Washington headquarters doubled as the longtime law offices of National Lawyers Guild (NLG) attorneys David Rein and Joseph Forer, who were also associated with the Rabinowitz, Boudin, and Standard law firm. Rein was a CPUSA member, while Forer served as co-counsel for the Communist Party with John Abt, a founding NLG member who, in addition to serving on the CPUSA Political Committee, also directed a Soviet spy group in Washington, DC.
NECLC’s Executive Director for more than 30 years was Edith Tiger, the first woman to head a national civil liberties organization. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, “In the early days of the McCarthy period, Edith was one of the founders of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. They formed this group to defend Communists, and those accused of being Communists from persecution based upon their political beliefs.” Tiger was involved in the process of selecting winners of NECLC’s Tom Paine award, whose recipients included such luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Jane Fonda, Bella Abzug, and Bob Dylan.