Mighty Ira tells the story of Ira Glasser, a civil rights and free speech champion, who today, unfortunately, has been mostly forgotten. This film tells his story, one totally relevant in our world of constant turmoil about free speech.
The film screened at the 10th annual Anthem Film Festival. Anthem, part of FreedomFest, normally takes place in Las Vegas, but this year, in order to avoid potential COVID difficulties, relocated to Rapid City, South Dakota, where the festival screened 39 films over four days.
Who Defends Freedom?
Founded in 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has long been at the forefront of civil rights issues, including anti-war protests, racial issues, voting rights, birth control, and sexual freedom. Two of the founders included Hellen Keller and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Over the decades the ACLU had ups and downs. Ira Glasser joined the organization in 1978. At that point it was operating as a mom-and-pop shop, barely hanging on. During his 23 years of service he gave it stability, establishing offices in every state, and created built up an endowment of $30 million.
Free Speech for All
One of the characteristics of Glasser’s time at the ACLU that Mighty Ira explores is the consistent dedication and integrity he brought to the organization. Although most people in the organization would describe themselves as liberal, the ACLU under Glasser did not limit itself to defending liberal clients.
Over the years the ACLU defended people of all political persuasions who were having their rights challenged, even communists and Nazis.
One of the biggest controversies of Glasser’s time at the ACLU involved a planned American Nazi demonstration in Skokie, Illinois. A group of American Nazis wanted to hold a demonstration there. Out of the 70,000 citizens of Skokie, about 40,000 were Jewish, including survivors of WWII concentration camps.
The Skokie city council passed ordinances making it impossible for the Nazis to hold a rally. Glasser led the ACLU in its challenge to these ordinances for over a year, eventually prevailing in the courts. During this time the unpopularity of these activities led to loss of funding, layoffs of staff, and a major decline in membership.
Afterwards, based on his belief that everyone, no matter how repulsive their ideas might seem, had a right to free speech, Glasser rebuilt the organization. Just a few years later, Democratic presidential candidate Governor Michael Dukakis described himself as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.”
His Buddy Bill
One of Glasser’s strengths was his ability to connect with people of differing political views.
The film goes at length into Glasser’s decades of friendship with William F. Buckley Jr. People credit Buckley as founding the modern conservative movement. His book Man and God at Yale and National Review Magazine which he edited showed up on the reading lists of generations of conservatives.
Buckley made Glasser a regular guest on his TV program Firing Line. Their rapport served as an example of keeping politics from destroying personal relationships.
After the screening, co-director Aaron Reese and author Michael Shermer discussed the film and answered audience questions.
In many of the scenes Glasser can be seen wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers hat and jacket. He was a big fan of the team. The directors decided to take him back to the location of the Dodgers’ stadium, Ebbets Field. The stadium was torn down in 1960 and replaced with apartments. This results in a memorable scene between Glasser and a resident of the apartments who had no idea what used to be there.
An audience member challenged the filmmakers. He brought up the fact that the ACLU had changed. He said it was now part of the “woke” movement, implying that they should have covered this.
Reese explained that the movie was not about the ACLU. It was about Ira Glasser. Shermer added that Glasser stood for free speech and as soon as you start censoring, you have to ask yourself who is going to have that power.
You can watch Mighty Ira on Prime Video and see the preview below. As you do, you’ll learn to appreciate Ira Glasser who turned 83 years old and still speaks out for freedom.