Ffity Years of American Atheists

Tom Flynn

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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.

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