October 17, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Nico Perrino, Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby
Culture Representation: The documentary “Mighty Ira” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans), who are attorneys and social justice activists, commenting on the life of former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) executive director Ira Glasser, including Glasser himself.
Culture Clash: Glasser has been a longtime advocate for ACLU principles, such as fighting for people’s rights to freedom of speech, even if it’s controversial hate speech.
Culture Audience: “Mighty Ira” will appeal primarily to people interested in ACLU history and social justice issues.
The documentary film “Mighty Ira,” about former ACLU executive director Ira Glasser, just happened to be released in the same year as “The Fight” documentary, which is about the ACLU’s battles against the Donald Trump presidential administration’s attempts to have more conservative laws for personal freedoms. While “The Fight” is more about the ACLU’s specific responses to Trump and his presidential administration, “Mighty Ira” is more about ACLU’s legacy and how Glasser helped shaped that legacy during his tenure as ACLU executive director from 1978 to 2001.
Born in 1938, Glasser participates in this documentary, which has a conventional approach in many ways but makes unconventional choices in other ways. As with most biographical documentaries, there are the expected interviews with work associates and family members of the person who’s the subject of the documentary. But “Mighty Ira” doesn’t take the typical route of presenting several ACLU cases as highlights of Glasser’s career. Instead, the documentary focuses on the ACLU’s involvement in the landmark 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, also known as the Skokie Affair, which had the ACLU defending a neo-Nazi group’s right to have a rally in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois.
The position of the ACLU has always been that freedom of speech in the U.S. Constitution applies to everyone in the U.S., no matter how offensive or controversial that speech might be. “Mighty Ira” (directed by Nico Perrino, Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby) weaves vivid descriptions of the Skokie Affair in between Glasser talking about his life. And then, the documentary ties both topics together at the end, to give an overview of the 2017 tragic and deadly “Unite the Right” civil unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, and how there are similarities to the Skokie Affair and what happened in Charlottesville.
The movie begins with a personal touch, by showing Glasser’s longtime love for the team formerly known as the Brooklyn Dodgers. Glasser (who’s lived in New York City for most of his life) vividly remembers being a fan attending Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field in 1947, when Jackie Robinson, as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, made history as the first African American player in Major League Baseball.
In the documentary, Ira visits the site of what used to be Ebbets Field (which is where an apartment building now stands) and he has bittersweet memories of what Ebbets Field meant to him and how crushed he was when the Dodgers team moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and Ebbets Field was torn down in 1960. Glasser says of Ebbets Field: “It was like a religious shrine. It was like if you had a beautiful, treasured Gothic cathedral, and they had torn it down and built a department store.”
While he visits the former site of Ebbets Field, which has a mural of Robinson, the documentary shows Glasser telling two curious African American girls, who are about 8 or 9 years old and passing by on the street, about Robinson and how important Robinson was in American history. Afterward, Glasser somewhat laments that these children didn’t know anything about Robinson. Its in contrast to a senior citizen African American man who greets Glasser on the same street and knew about Robinson.
As Glasser says in the movie, these childhood memories of watching the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field are parallel to Glasser first becoming aware of racial injustice and wanting to do something about it. Growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush, Glasser says he spent many years of his childhood not thinking about the fact that everyone around him was pretty much like his family: white, working-class and Jewish. He describes New York City at that time as diverse overall, but the neighborhoods were racially and ethnically segregated.
It wasn’t until Glasser became a fan of Robinson that he started to understand that Robinson and other people of color were treated as second-class citizens for not being white. When the Dodgers would travel outside of New York to states with Jim Crow segregation laws, Robinson could not get lodging or eat at the same places as his white teammates. And this type of racism outraged Glasser when he was a child.
Glasser entered the work force just as the civil rights movement of the 1960s was starting to blossom. In the early 1960s, Glasser started his career by teaching math at Queens College and Sarah Lawrence College. From 1964 to 1967, he was an associate editor of Current magazine, a New York-based reprint monthly publication of public affairs. And then a fateful meeting with Robert F. Kennedy in 1967 changed Glasser’s life.
According to Glasser, he wrote a letter to Kennedy (who was then a U.S. Senator for New York), asking to meet with him, even though Glasser knew that it was a long shot that Kennedy would reply. Glasser greatly admired Kennedy, whom Glasser describes in the documentary as “the leading white politician who became genuinely engaged in the civil rights movement” at the time. Not only did Glasser get a reply from Kennedy, but Glasser also got to meet with Kennedy in person. During the meeting, Glasser says that he told Kennedy that Kennedy should run for president of the United States.
Kennedy told Glasser that it was too early to decide if he would launch a presidential campaign, but he encouraged Glasser to take a job that Glasser had turned down: associate director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). The job had been offered to Glasser by Aryeh Neier, who was NYCLU’s executive director from 1965 to 1970. Glasser thought he wasn’t qualified for the job because he didn’t have a law degree or a background in law.
However, Glasser says that Kennedy told Glasser that he could do a lot for the civil rights movement because of the passion that Glasser had for it. And so, a month after meeting with Kennedy, Glasser took the NYCLU associate director position. In 1970, Glasser was promoted to NYCLU executive director. And in 1978, he became executive director of the ACLU, until he retired in 2001.
Why does “Mighty Ira” put so much emphasis on the Skokie Affair as a flagship case for the ACLU, even though the case was decided in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977, the year before Glasser became the head of the ACLU? Glasser explains in the documentary: “In retrospect, the Skokie case was a defining, pivotal moment for the ACLU. The reason why it was a defining and pivotal is that the reaction to the Skokie case threatened our existence.” Glasser also says that he when he became the executive director of the ACLU, he thought racial justice would be his top priority, but “my top priority turned out to be organizational survival.”
The essence of the Skokie Affair is that the National Socialist Party of America (a neo-Nazi group that was led at the time by Frank Collin) demanded to hold a rally in Skokie, whose city officials resisted and denied a permit. Why did this racist and anti-Semitic group choose Skokie? Because neo-Nazi Collin (who lived in the area) hated that Skokie had a large Jewish population and a growing number of African Americans living there too, according to Philippa Strum, author of “When the Nazis Came to Skokie.”
The National Socialist Party of America (NSPA) sued Skokie over the permit denial, and the case (in various forms) went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the NSPA, on grounds of freedom of speech. David Goldberger, who was a lawyer for ACLU’s Illinois Division at the time, says in the documentary: “I became the lead attorney in the Skokie case, in part, because no one else would do it.”
It was a victory for the NSPA and the ACLU, but at what cost? Many people, especially those who are targets of neo-Nazis, vilified the ACLU for defending the neo-Nazis’ rights to freedom of speech. There is archival footage of several Jewish residents of Skokie saying that the NSPA rally would open up old wounds and remind people of Nazi Germany. Some of the Skokie residents said that they were ready to get in physical fights or shoot people to defend themselves if they had to do it.
One of the most outspoken anti-ACLU people during the Skokie Affair was Ben Stern, a Holocaust survivor and a Skokie resident at the time. Born in 1921, Stern was vehemently opposed to the NSPA rally taking place in Skokie, and he helped organized citizens’ groups that were on the side of Skokie officials who denied the permit. One of the best scenes in “Mighty Ira” is showing a reunion with Glasser and Stern, who put aside their differences years ago, but hadn’t seen each other in a long time until their reunion was filmed for this documentary.
After all the legal battles, the NSPA rally ended up not taking place in Skokie after all, but it happened in 1978 in Chicago’s Marquette Park, which is where the neo-Nazi group originally wanted to have the rally. The Skokie Affair controversy and the Marquette Park rally got so much publicity, the neo-Nazis ended up being far outnumbered and out-shouted by counter-protestors. The neo-Nazis slunk away in disgrace and defeat, having had their chance to hold this public-speech event, and it turned out to be a huge flop for them.
The documentary includes archival footage of Collin at the rally, repeatedly muttering to his followers how “pathetic” the rally was. Ironically, Collin’s father was Jewish, which is something that Collin tried to hide until the media found out. Collin later ended up being ousted by the NSPA and became a convicted child molester who spent time in prison for molesting boys.
“Mighty Ira” also includes a compelling segment on the unlikely friendship between Glasser and ultra-conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the PBS show “Firing Line” and the right-wing magazine National Review. The two men were opposites in almost every way, and often squared off in televised debates. “Firing Line” was a frequent forum for these debates. Buckley died in 2008, at the age of 82.
Glasser says in the documentary that these TV appearances “sort of elevated my visibility and my persona in a way that it had not been before.” One of the most famous debates on “Firing Line” was titled “Resolved: The ACLU Is Full of Baloney.” Glasser adds of his friendship with Buckley: “Part of the attraction we had for each other in that relationship was how different we were.”
Glasser remembers one of the highlights of their friendship was when, in 1994, he convinced Buckley (who was the epitome of an elite country-club type who would take limos everywhere) to go on a subway with him to Shea Stadium to watch a game between the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs. The documentary includes archival TV footage of that trip. It was Buckley’s first time at a baseball game and the first time that Buckley had taken a subway in over 30 years. Ira’s sister Cora Glasser says in the documentary: “For Ira to bring [Buckley] down to a working person’s level was a victory.”
And when Ira had a heart attack in 1998, Buckley called Ira’s wife Trude about a week later to ask how Ira was doing. It was a compassionate gesture that many people would not think someone like Buckley would ever do for an ultra-liberal person. Ira admits in the documentary about Buckley making that concerned phone call: “I often wondered if I would’ve done that if he had had the heart attack.” Trude says of Buckley in the documentary that Buckley was “charming and solicitous and the perfect gentleman.”
It might surprise some viewers of this documentary that out of all of the friends that Glasser has had in his life, Buckley is the only who gets mentioned with any significance in “Mighty Ira.” It’s pointed out in the movie that what Ira learned from getting to know Buckley on a personal level is that friendships and other relationships can transcend political views. And to a larger degree, the documentary shows that ACLU has a similar purpose when it comes to defending the rights of all, even people who are political enemies or have political opinions that are opposite to the ACLU attorneys who defend these opposing opinions.
Speaking of attorneys and civil rights activists, there are several who are interviewed in this documentary. They include the aforementioned Goldberger; Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; fundraiser/author Roger Craver; Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; Norman Siegel, NYCLU executive director from 1985 to 2000; Sheila Suess Kennedy, executive director of Indiana Civil Liberties Union from 1992 to 1998; Nadine Strossen, ACLU president from 1991 to 2008; former ACLU attorney Joel Gora; Carolyn Stern, who is Ben Stern’s daughter; and former ACLU board member Wendy Kaminer.
In the documentary, Ira Glasser explains his position on the ACLU’s responsibility for the 2017 Unite to Right rally in Charlottesville that included a white supremacist murdering counter-protestor Heather Heyer by running her over with his car. The ACLU provided legal representation for the group to hold the rally in Charlottesville, as part of freedom-of-speech rights. However, Ira Glasser and former ACLU attorney Gora say that it’s not the responsibility of the ACLU to provide the proper police protection at these types of free-speech events.
The documentary includes archival news footage of several eyewitnesses to the Heyer murder who say that there were no police officers at the scene of the crime until it was too late. Although there can certainly be comparisons to the Skokie Affair and what happened in Charlottesville, it seems like the “Mighty Ira” filmmakers wanted to put the Charlottesville tragedy in the documentary to make the film more current, rather than to have the documentary be about Glasser reminiscing about a job that he hasn’t had since 2001.
As such, the documentary breezes right through some of Ira Glasser’s career highlights of when he was executive director of the ACLU, with a quick montage of graphics illustrating these highlights. They include the 1986 launch of the national ACLU Lesbian and Rights Project; the 1989 Doe v. University of Michigan case, with the ACLU winning a fight against the University of Michigan’s ban of hate speech; the 1997 case Reno v. ACLU, which ruled that the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech; and the 1999 Chicago vs. Morales case, which found that a vaguely worded loitering law unfairly targeted African Americans and Latino for arrests.
In “Mighty Ira,” Ira Glasser comes across as affable, intelligent, genuine, and proud of his working-class roots. He’s someone who’s very steeped in nostalgia, but also still engaged in today’s issues, many of which are the same as when he first became involved in civil rights. Glasser is aware of his ACLU legacy, but he’s also humble about it: “I’d certainly had my shot at it, and I was happy to pass the baton on to others.”
And what inspired the documentary’s title? That question is answered at the end of the movie, when lifelong baseball fan Glasser reads a very entertaining original poem that he received called “Mighty Ira at the Bat,” as a retirement gift. The poem praises Glasser and lists some of his best qualities and how he rose to many challenges that he had at the ACLU. And the poem was written by someone (who’s not identified by name in the movie) who originally recommended another candidate for the ACLU job that Glasser ended up getting. As a testament to how Glasser won over the respect of the person who originally opposed him, the poem ends with a note that says, “Everyone can be wrong once in a while.”
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released “Mighty Ira” via virtual cinema in New York City on October 9, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is October 23, 2020.