This is one in a series of profiles marking the 60th anniversary of the ACLU of Kentucky’s founding. Each week through December 2015 we will highlight the story of one member, client, case, board or staff member that has been an integral part of our organization’s rich history.
“I think to be a civil libertarian you have to be optimistic. You have to have optimism that the country and the world can be better, and despite all the challenges and the negativity that might surround you, you really have to stay committed to your vision of what true justice means.” -Jeff Vessels
Former ACLU-KY executive director Jeff Vessels’s first experience with the ACLU was in 1986, at the Southeastern Conference for Lesbians and Gay Men. One of the speakers at the conference was from the ACLU, which at the time was formalizing the organization’s LGBT rights work in a new department called the LGBT Project. “[The speaker] talked about the connections among social justice issues and how the ACLU sort of connects those dots,” Vessels said. “It made a lot of sense to me.”
When he returned home to Owensboro after the conference, Vessels became an ACLU-KY member. Soon he was organizing local meetings and serving on the board. After a few years, he became executive director of the state affiliate. During his tenure, Vessels and the ACLU-KY worked on many issues, including LGBT Fairness ordinances, racial justice, and separation of church and state cases involving display of the Ten Commandments.
Vessels pointed to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as one of the most significant moments in his five years leading the ACLU-KY. “We had three staff members at the time, and we were in the office when we heard the news on the radio that the towers were falling,” he said. “And when we absorbed the shock of that news, we realized that our whole world and the work that we were doing had turned upside-down.”
After September 11, representing the ACLU and speaking out against the Patriot Act became controversial actions. “Anyone who didn’t go along with what the George W. Bush administration wanted to do was labeled unpatriotic,” Vessels said, adding that the ACLU was one of the few voices calling government overreach into question. “Any time we spoke out, we were also accused of being unpatriotic, of being the enemy. The public was so frightened that they just wanted to go along with whatever made them feel safer, so at the national level the ACLU coined the phrase: ‘Safe and free.’”