An Interview with Michael Lee Gradison

By Fran Quigley, Executive Director 1982-1992

Michael Lee Gradison served as the executive director of the ACLU of Indiana (then called the Indiana Civil Liberties Union) from 1982 to 1992, a time of historic challenges and achievement in the defense of civil liberties in Indiana, and was a member of the Board of Directors beginning in 1967. Thirty years after he assumed the role of executive director, Gradison sat down for an interview with Fran Quigley, himself a former executive director and board member of ACLU of Indiana.

Michael GradisonMichael Gradison

Michael Lee Gradison

Q. When and how did your family first become involved with the ACLU?

A. My parents were members of a small group who founded the Indiana affiliate in 1953. Some folks may still recall that one of the organization's first challenges was to find a place to meet. They planned to hold their organizing meeting at the Indiana World War Memorial but protests by the American Legion and others, who trotted out the old Communist allegations common at the time, thwarted their plans. Their struggle illustrated how important it is that public spaces be open to all groups regardless of their political views.

Q. During your time as executive director, what were some of the most important challenges to the Bill of Rights that you and the organization faced?

A. There were so many that it is hard to rank any over others. I am proud that we responded to a series of controversial shootings by police in Indianapolis by working hand-in-hand with the Urban League and many other community partners to push for the creation of a civilian board to review police. I was honored to serve on the Indianapolis Law Enforcement/Community Relations Coalition with my good friend Sam Jones, longtime president of the Urban League and one of the finest human beings to grace this planet. We also succeeded in convincing first the City-County Council and then Mayor Hudnut to create the Citizens Police Complaint Board, which still exists today.

Q. Was it important to you that the ACLU of Indiana reach across barriers like race and religion and sexual preference?

A. Well, it was important to all of our members and supporters-- a tradition that dated back to our founders. My parents, for example, were a dynamic combo, a Russian Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother. My mother was the real activist in our family, and she along with most of our members were early and active supporters of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. So it was in that tradition that we created a task force in the 1980s to defend the rights of gays and lesbians, one of the first such task forces in the country.

Q. The ACLU of Indiana also fought for the rights of persons with HIV/AIDS, correct?

A. Absolutely, and the most well-known of our cases was when we represented Ryan White. It was one of the most profound experiences I ever had. There was so much public education to be done because there were so many ridiculous misunderstandings of how people contracted the disease—some people really believed you could contract the disease by breathing the same air as someone who was HIV-positive. Ryan and Jeanne White were inspirations. Jeanne White turned from a soft-spoken proverbial Hoosier housewife into a passionate advocate for the rights being denied to her son and others because of the disease. And Ryan himself—well, he was courage personified. He knew the way he was being treated was wrong, and he was willing to fight for his rights and the rights of others with the disease.

Q. How do you think the organization is doing now, almost 60 years after the affiliate was founded?

A. I think we are doing very well. Our leadership is strong and our new executive director, Jane Henegar, will do a great job. She has fervor, which is an essential element in defending unpopular causes. If the issue was popular, after all, they would not need us!

To find out more about the ACLU of Indiana visit the Indiana History Center's Destination Indiana exhibit.