Free Inquiry congratulates American Atheists as it nears its fiftieth anniversary year. The organization was founded by the activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair in 1963, soon after O’Hair’s victory in one of two consolidated U.S. Supreme Court cases that ended mandatory prayer in public schools.
During most of its early years, American Atheists was the movement’s only active national membership organization.* From a headquarters in Austin, Texas, O’Hair ran the group as her personal fiefdom. For better and worse, she was the most visible face of American unbelief. Her notoriety rebuilt public awareness of atheism, but her abrasiveness reinforced negative public stereotypes of unbelievers. Still, under her leadership American Atheists battled in courts and in the arena of public opinion to expand the rights of the nonreligious, and published the American Atheist magazine.
In August 1995, Madalyn O’Hair, her son Jon, and her adopted daughter, Robin (biological daughter of Madalyn’s other son, Bill) disappeared. After some confusion, Ellen Johnson emerged as president of the organization. Eventually it was discovered that the O’Hairs had been kidnapped, robbed, and murdered by a former employee.
Johnson moved the national headquarters to Cranford, New Jersey. After a period of reduced activity, American Atheists under Johnson’s leadership conceived the Godless Americans March on Washington, D.C. The November 2, 2002, event (cosponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism) attracted some three thousand participants to the National Mall, the largest turnout of unbelievers since the days of Robert Green Ingersoll.
Johnson’s presidency ended amid controversy in 2008. Frank Zindler, then editing the American Atheist magazine, served briefly as interim president. Ed Buckner, a former executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, served as president from 2008 to 2010, holding successful conventions and streamlining headquarters operations. In the organization’s first transfer of power from one elected president to another, David Silverman took the helm of American Atheists in 2010. Under Silverman’s leadership, it has conducted hugely successful conventions, sparked new controversies with brash antireligious billboards, and played a pivotal role in the Reason Rally, which brought an estimated thirty thousand freethinkers to the National Mall on March 24, 2012.
In March 2013, American Atheists will formally mark its fiftieth anniversary at a convention in its “birthplace,” Austin, Texas. Congratulations!
* The mid-twentieth century was a drought period for freethought organizing in the United States. In 1963, the only active national membership organizations were the Freethinkers of America and the American Humanist Association (AHA). Freethinkers of America (founded in 1915) was already deeply in decline and closed soon after the death of its longtime president Joseph Lewis in 1968. In that same year, the American Humanist Association (founded 1941) became a religious organization, presumably limiting its appeal to atheists. (AHA retained its religious identification for tax purposes until 2003.) American Atheists stood as the movement’s only membership organization until 1976, when the Freedom from Religion Foundation was founded under the leadership of Anne Gaylor, a former O’Hair colleague. The organization now known as the Council for Secular Humanism formed in 1980.
Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.