MISSOULA—In a few months, Scott Crichton is going to be playing a lot more guitar.
Twenty-eight years after becoming the first full-time executive director of the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, he plans to leave his job in August.
That will give him more time for his music, taking him back to the beginning of his long career as an activist and organizer, when he sang labor songs, civil rights songs and songs of struggle. At 67, he figures he’s earned some time off.
“I’m not walking away because I’ve won all the fights,” he said.
Far from it. Crichton is as apt to talk about his regrets—Montana still has the death penalty, still criminalizes marijuana possession—as he is to talk about the ACLU’s accomplishments in Montana—voting rights reform, improved jail conditions and marriage equality.
His associates like to point out that Crichton, for all his passion about free speech and civil rights, is known for his willingness to work with anyone, to push for change in a non-confrontational manner.
Joe Howell, a retired Montana State University Billings math professor who just stepped down after nine years on the board of the Montana ACLU, said Crichton had a disarming way of making allies of even the most rock-ribbed conservatives, the sort of people who thought the ACLU was an agent of the devil.
“Scott’s a master at that, and I think he’s passed that onto a lot of the staff,” he said. That’s one reason why Howell, though he is sad to see Crichton go, is confident the chapter will stay strong.
Liz Welch, of Billings, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy coordinator for the Montana ACLU, said Crichton might be open to compromise on strategy, but never on principles.
“The burnout rate is so high for advocates, so to have the longevity he has, you have to be one tough, tough guy,” she said. “There’s no one in this world that inspires me more than Scott.”
Like many people of his generation, Crichton’s commitment to justice and civil rights grew out of his opposition to the Vietnam War. Born in Milwaukee, the son of a successful entrepreneur, Crichton said he was expected to follow his father into business. But he was too independent for that.
“I didn’t want to be known as Bob Crichton’s son,” he said. “I wanted to be my own person.”
A matter of priorities
He spent a couple of years at Wabash College, a male-only liberal arts college in Indiana, but dropped out during a study-abroad stint in Bogota, Colombia. He was already a guitar player by then and found that staying up all night singing and carousing with his Colombian friends was a better learning experience than attending classes.
He went back to the United States and lived for a time with his sister in Chicago, where he got involved in the nascent Black Panther Party. His immersion in radical politics was strengthened that year by a trip to the Encampment for Citizenship in Puerto Rico, where youths of different races, religions and backgrounds from North and South America were taught to cooperate in pursuit of a just society.
Among the speakers he would hear at the encampment was Roger Baldwin, the first executive director of the ACLU.
“That’s when I got my politics,” Crichton said, speaking generally of his experiences in 1968.
From Chicago, he transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He was there for the black student strike of 1969, and then was elected to the steering committee of the Students for a Democratic Society, the most prominent of the left-wing student groups of the time.
It was an active, busy time, with a few interludes of travel and exploration. One interlude in late 1969 included a trip to Portland, Ore., to visit friends. Driving home with another acquaintance, he remembers seeing Montana for the first time, of coming over Lolo Pass near Missoula on a spectacularly beautiful winter day.
As a young man, his father had spent some time in Montana, where he worked for the state auditor, and Crichton’s grandparents had moved to Deer Lodge in the 1930s, where they operated Crichton Hardware.
Crichton stopped in Deer Lodge to visit his uncle, and he was there when they heard the news from Chicago: Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, had been killed in his bed during a raid by the FBI and the Chicago police.
Crichton said Hampton’s death convinced him that working to end racial injustice was even more important than the effort to end the war. He soon moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for an underground newspaper, for a while anyway.
“My career as a journalist was rather short-lived,” he said.
He was in the office one day when it was raided by the FBI, whose notorious Counter Intelligence Program was used to infiltrate and cripple organizations like the Black Panther Party and radical newspapers. When the FBI was spotted out front, someone in the newspaper office produced a handful of guns wrapped in a blanket and asked Crichton to run for the back entrance.
His flight was interrupted by FBI agents with drawn guns, and Crichton was arrested. He said the raid was intended to net another SDS member, not him, so he spent only one night in lockup and eventually was sentenced to two years’ probation.
He moved to Vermont, where he and his first wife had a daughter, and where he worked as a carpenter and handyman while lying low, to avoid breaking the terms of his probation. He continued moving around, playing music throughout New England, living back in Milwaukee for a time and then moving to Red Lodge in 1974, to join some friends from D.C. He spent the winter of 1975 in San Francisco, studying guitar and Tai Chi, a mind and body practice that began in China as a martial art.
“That was the best short period of my life,” Crichton said.
Dennis Taylor, of Helena, a longtime member of the Montana ACLU board and a former Billings city administrator, said Tai Chi is partly responsible for Crichton’s measured persistence.
“Every morning he gets up and does Tai Chi by himself,” Taylor said. “It’s something that I think helps him stay centered and calm.”
Back to Montana
In the bicentennial year of 1976, other friends talked Crichton into coming back to Montana to take part in the New Western Energy Show, a vaudeville-like troupe that toured Montana entertaining people and teaching them about alternatives to coal-based energy.
In addition to singing and playing guitar, Crichton was the bus driver, and on that tour he was introduced to large portions of Montana. He played a lot of music in the late 1970s, sometimes for rallies and protests and sometimes just to get by, but even when he played in bars he exposed his listeners to as many overtly political songs as he thought they would bear.
In 1981 he moved back to Montana for good. He got involved in more political vaudeville, once touring the state’s reservations under the auspices of AERO, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization.
His musical collaborators included Liz Pauly in the early years and then Kathleen Guehlstorff, whom he later married. They toured for years as Curly and Kate, performing for peace groups and anti-nuke activists all over the West. Kate later got a grant to write a series of songs based on Montana oral histories, and they spent more years singing those songs around the state, courtesy of the Montana Humanities Speakers Bureau.
Crichton was active in the Last Chance Peacemakers in Helena and then the Montana Low-Income Coalition, where he quickly became director after several resignations. He moved to Billings in 1988 to work for the defeat of Constitutional Amendment 18, allowing the Legislature to restrict eligibility for public assistance.
The amendment passed, but it was defeated in Billings. He and Kate had found a house in Fromberg, and in August 1988 Crichton was offered a job as full-time director of the Montana ACLU chapter, in Billings, which for its first seven years had had only a part-time director.
And that’s the position Crichton has held for 28 years, building a statewide organization and forging partnerships with lawyers willing to donate their time to ACLU crusades. One of Crichton’s first initiatives was to host a series of “Jefferson Meetings” across the state, trying to convince people wary of the ACLU “that there’s nothing subversive at all about wanting to support the First Amendment.”
On a shoestring
The Montana chapter had very few resources in those early days. Crichton said his Curly and Kate travels, paid for by the Speakers Bureau, became his de facto vehicle for getting around the state on behalf of the ACLU. Sometimes there were clashes between the music and his ACLU work.
In 1991, he said, he and Kate were supposed to perform in Deer Lodge, where, in the aftermath of the big prison riot that year, the ACLU was deeply unpopular for defending the rights of some of the prisoners involved in the riot. Kate didn’t want to play there at all, but Crichton talked her into it.
“OK,” she said, “but we’ll sleep in Butte.”
The Montana ACLU had some signal accomplishments, including an effort to require the creation of legislative districts comprising a majority of Native Americans voters.
“Finally,” Crichton said, “someone was asserting that the federal voting rights law applied to Native Americans.”
Another legal victory gave access to health insurance to same-sex partners of Montana University System employees. Another resulted in the creation of a statewide public defender system. Despite that victory, Crichton is convinced the state has deliberately underfunded the public defender system since its creation 10 years ago.
“Like all civil liberties, the fights are never over,” he said.
Helena lawyer Ron Waterman has worked with the Montana ACLU since the prison riot of 1991, handling cases involving prisoner rights, death penalty abolition and jail reform. He said one of Crichton’s achievements has been working to bring about change without having to take government agencies to court.
Most people, including government officials, “really do want to do what’s fair and just,” Waterman said, but they work with limited budgets and they have constituents with priorities that don’t always match those of the ACLU. He said Crichton is always open to working with people, trying to find ways of, say, bringing jails into compliance with modern standards without breaking the bank.
“That’s Scott’s skill,” Waterman said. “He’s very good at working with people.”
Welch, the Montana LBGT advocacy coordinator, said Crichton is something of a legend within the ACLU, revered and respected across the country for his experience, his lifetime of activism and his ability to get so much done in a generally conservative, sparsely populated state.
Board member Taylor credit’s Crichton’s leadership for the decision by the national ACLU to make Montana one of just five affiliates to receive an “enhancement grant” in 2008. Montana became the first small chapter to hire a staff lawyer, and Crichton, who worked alone or just with office help for so many years, now has a staff of six and a half positions statewide, with several other people doing work for the ACLU but funded by other organizations.
After Crichton and Kate split up, he decided there was no reason to keep the state headquarters in Billings. Crichton said he was driving 30,000 miles a year, mostly because his presence was so often needed in Helena. He moved there with the office in 2003.
That’s where he met Gwen Florio, then a reporter covering the Capitol for the Great Falls Tribune after many years as a national and international reporter. When she took a job with the Missoulian, he moved the office again. Florio has since quit journalism and is doing well as a novelist, having recently signed a contract to write three new mysteries.
Florio and Crichton live up Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, and one of his post-ACLU goals is to do more traveling with Florio.
Crichton doesn’t think his successors will have any lack of work to do. He is worried about the increasing meshing of religion and politics, and concerned about the insidious effects of money, particularly “dark money,” on politics. And there will be endless work to do in regard to what he calls the “prison-industrial complex we have immersed ourselves in.”
Waterman said one key to Crichton’s effectiveness was that his many interests were grounded in one idea.
“Scott’s passion deals with making sure ‘liberty and justice for all’ means what it says … to make sure that what we see as the promise is equal to what we see as the reality,” he said.
Welch said she has been consistently impressed by Crichton’s “deep level of personal conviction.”
“I’ve met a lot of people who work the mission,” she said. “He lives it.”