Carrying on the Business of Liberty

Civil liberty. Does the term mean anything to you?

It’s one of five key principles en-shrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and it behooves us to be able to name—and honor and protect—those five freedoms contained therein: speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government.

You probably don’t walk around every day counting those off on your fingers. Maybe you give little thought at all to something enumerated in our governing document by adoption on December 15, 1791, even though those freedoms are the intellectual and personal foundation of our country.

Well, then, you just might be lucky that in January of 1920—the same year as the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote—an organization called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded to guard against government abuse of those individual freedoms first guaranteed some 233 years ago.

And the Asheville area is lucky to have an extremely active guardian of those liberties through both his professional and personal life, and specifically through his involvement with the ACLU. Bruce A. Elmore, Jr.—a third-generation attorney in Buncombe County—has offered his legal and leadership skills to the ACLU of Western North Carolina Chapter for some 21 years, alongside 15 years of service to the state board (including several terms as president or vice president).

Buncombe County attorney Bruce A. Elmore, Jr.
Buncombe County attorney Bruce A. Elmore, Jr.

Champion of civil liberties

This month, Elmore is being honored for his civil rights contributions as the 2024 recipient of the WNC chapter’s Evan Mahaney Champion of Civil Liberties Award. In an interview, The Urban News asked for reflections on his personal involvement and the issues the local chapter has addressed in its regional activities.

His original interest in the ACLU, he recalled, stemmed from a couple of things, one of which was “probably typical.” That one was “the ACLU representation of the Klan wanting to march in Skokie.”

Elmore was referring to the 1977 incident of a planned march by self-styled Nazis through the village of Skokie, Illinois, a town populated by of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors. The ACLU took the controversial (at the time) position of representing the Nazis in order to protect “free speech.” Yep. “Speech” being the first in line of those five freedoms protected back in 1791. Eventually reaching the Supreme Court, the case resulted in a decision that the march should be allowed due to free speech concerns.

“A Jewish lawyer represented the Klan,” Elmore recalled. It was a fundamental lesson for his budding intellectual interests: “The fact that the ACLU was willing to be intellectually honest—free speech on all kinds of issues … usually progressive but would represent the Klan and Nazis.”

So he wound up joining the ACLU and found a “sense of community with like-minded people,” he declared.

Asheville … then

Elmore reinforced the history of his ethical bent by recalling an embedded childhood memory. “When I grew up in Asheville there were two [movie] theaters. One didn’t let Blacks in; the other did but [they] sat in the balcony.”

He then jumped to another Asheville memory from 1970, when the segregated bathrooms at the Vance Memorial downtown were ordered chained off, and segregated water fountains ordered turned off—permanently closing two ubiquitously stark symbols from public life in decades before that.

His early professional life here, after graduating from the University of North Carolina and its law school, gave him a chance to represent a variety of cases large and small, including direct representation of people charged with such low-level offenses as “resisting arrest, walking in the streets….”

“The practice of law was never to me all about making money,” he mused. “This was about something more than that…the feeling that you’re doing something larger than yourself, or just yourself.”

And so it was that the ACLU captured his adult lawyerly attention and led to a professional-personal lifetime of honoring that “civil liberty” bent that tugged at his sense of justice.

No lack of civil liberty issues

Elmore says the Buncombe ACLU chapter still participates in local legal issues, and in current social issues that touch on the inherent freedoms the group honors—such as complaints about books in public libraries. He has personal concerns about more cutting back of freedoms.

“I do believe that racial equality is the most important first, and reproductive rights…. All of (it) comes down to you have to be able to speak—express yourself.”

“Separation of church and state to me is very important,” he added. “There’s a tension between free expression and the establishment clause that you just can’t get around.”

And why would he say people should consider joining him and the other members/supporters in the Western ACLU Chapter?

“Because we are still holding public forums and trying to educate people on (issues including) reproductive freedom, race equity, LGBTQ+. Trying to make free expression more important.

“We would like more diversity,” he said, mentioning low numbers of Black and Hispanic involvement. “We’d like more young people.” Current newer members are mostly in their late 40s, he said. “We also have an indigenous member, Cherokee, who is an enrolled member of the tribe.”

Honoring Bruce A. Elmore, Jr.

Elmore received the ACLU WNC Chapter’s Evan Mahaney Champion of Civil Liberties Award on Saturday, May 11, 2024. The meeting and celebration took place from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Dr. Wesley Grant St. Southside Community Center in Asheville. The group recognized Elmore’s service on the WNC Chapter Board of Directors for 21 years, and his 15 years on the State Board. His most satisfying role there was serving on the Legal Committee, screening matters for potential litigation.

As a local chapter leader, he has frequently given the ACLU perspective to the press; served on panel discussions; and given talks and workshops to classrooms and civic groups on matters involving freedom of speech, separation of church and state, unconstitutional provisions of the Patriot Act, and a six-week review of the US Constitution itself. He was also a volunteer litigator to the NC State Supreme Court.

Through his own law practice, Elmore represented, pro bono, hundreds of people charged with crimes—including one charged under an unconstitutional state statute for flying the American flag upside down.

The Champion of Civil Liberties Award was first presented in 2003 to its namesake, Evan R. Mahaney, longtime journalist and civil libertarian instrumental in the rejuvenation of the WNC Chapter in the 1990s. Other past recipients include:

2004     Women in Black: peace witnesses

2005     Global Report: journalism

2006     Revs. Howard Hanger, Joe Hoffman, Mark Ward: marriage equality for same gender/same-sex partners

2007     Deborah Miles, Center for Diversity Education

2008     Frank Goldsmith, Jessica Leaven, Pamela Laughon, Lenora Topp: legal team that freed Glen Edward Chapman

2009     Karen VanEman: African American Oral History

2010     Bob Smith: Asheville Buncombe Community Relations Council

2011     Lotte Meyerson

2012     Defensa Communitaria, Latino community advocates

2013     Jim Cavener

2014     Drew Reisinger, Buncombe County Register of Deeds, and the Campaign for Southern Equality

2015     Building Bridges of Asheville

2016     Isaac Coleman (posthumous)

2017     Women’s March on Asheville

2018     Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective (a social change theatre troupe)

2019     Tyrone Greenlee

2021     Beloved Asheville

2022     UNC-Asheville Professors Dolly Jenkins-Mullen, Ph.D. and Dwight Mullen, Ph.D.

2023     Racial Justice Coalition



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