Norman Lear’s work was an integral part of American life in the second half of the 20th Century. Television programs like Maude, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons dragged television out of the 1950s and into the real world. As Variety states: “Lear’s shows were the first to address the serious political, cultural and social flashpoints of the day – racism, abortion, feminism, homosexuality, the Vietnam war – by working pointed new wrinkles into the standard domestic comedy formula. No subject was taboo: Two 1977 episodes of All in the Family revolved around the attempted rape of lead character Archie Bunker’s wife Edith.”
All in the Family, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1979, typified the clash of generations. Middle-aged bigot Archie Bunker – played by Carrol O’Connor – was a right-wing King Lear in Queens, raging at the radical changes in society. Archie didn’t let ignorance get in the way of his opinions; once he argued that people who lived in communes were communists. The thing is, the old dog was actually capable of learning new tricks. Archie never evolved into any kind of saint. But over the nine seasons "Family" aired, experience taught Archie the benefits of listening to (and respecting) viewpoints far different from his own.
All in the Family was the jewel in Lear’s crown, but don’t forget the highly popular shows One Day at a Time (which featured Bonnie Franklin as a divorcee raising two daughters in the Midwest) and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (with Louise Lasser as the titular figure in a parody of soap opera conventions). Good or bad, Lear’s work was never indifferent.
More recently, you may have heard about Lear’s lively activism. His TV shows were themselves arguments for free and unfettered speech, and Lear supported a slate of liberal causes. In 1981 he founded People for the American Way. The organization’s website describes the ways that PFAW has “engaged cultural and community leaders and individual activists in campaigns promoting freedom of expression, civic engagement, fair courts, and legal and lived equality for LGBTQ people.”
Lear’s life was a long and fulfilling one. In 1978 he was given the first of two Peabody Awards, the most prestigious award in television. “To Norman Lear,” it reads, “...for giving us comedy with a social conscience. He uses humor to give us a better understanding of social issues. He lets us laugh at our own shortcomings and prejudices, and while doing this, maintains the highest entertainment standards.”
A pioneer, a gadfly of the state, a mensch. To paraphrase a lyric from All in the Family’s theme song, “Mister, we could use a guy like Norman Lear again.”
Liberty Project May Time Capsule: A Look Back in History
From labor movements, to free speech, here are some historic highlights for liberty in the month of May
May, 1968— Following the April 23rd Columbia University student protests, May 1968 marked a month of student uprising in Paris. Protesters were critical of everything from France's outdated university system, to lack of employment opportunities and general working conditions. Demonstrations for radical economic and political change began, and, on May 3rd, protesters at the Sorbonne clashed with police and hundreds of students were arrested. The unrest continued, culminating on May 24th, when students seized the Paris Stock Exchange, and raised a Communist flag over the building. Following these events, President Charles de Gaulle agreed to some concessions, including better working conditions, education reform and higher wages.
May 4, 1886 – Police advanced on workers at a labor demonstration in Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 3, 1886. The next day, a rally in support of those workers, and of an eight-hour work day, erupted in violence when police clashed with protesters. A bomb was thrown, resulting in death and injury to police and demonstrators alike. The event came to be known as The Haymarket Massacre, and is considered the inspiration for May Day observances for workers around the world.
May 4, 1970 – Four students, 19 year-old Allison Krause, 20 year-old Sandra Lee Scheuer, 19 year-old William K. Schroeder, and 20 year-old Jeffrey Glenn Miller, were killed, and 11 others wounded, by National Guardsmen who opened fire on a group of 1000 students who were protesting President Nixon's planned invasion of Cambodia. This event led to campus demonstrations and protests in over 450 colleges and universities across America.
May 5, 1862 – Mexican troops under General Zaragoza, outnumbered three to one, defeated invading the invading French forces of Napoleon III in the Battle of Puebla. This victory is celebrated today as Cinco de Mayo.
May 5, 1961 – Alan Shepard became the first American in space.
May 7, 1945 – General Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender of German forces in Reims, Germany, marking the end of WWII in Europe.
May 10, 1994 – Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the president of South Africa after winning in a free election, and in spite of efforts to derail his election.
May 14, 1607 – The establishment of the first permanent English settlement in America at Jamestown, Virginia.
May 14, 1804 – Lewis and Clark began their 6,000-mile journey across the country to explore the Northwest.
May 17, 1954 – The US Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools and racially separate educational facilities were inherently unequal in Brown V. Board of Education. This landmark case was argued by Thurgood Marshall who went on to become the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court.
May 19, 1926 – Britain's Trades Union Congress called off their General Strike, which had brought the nation to a halt for nine days. Though many thought the strike presaged class warfare, it never actually evolved into a revolutionary uprising.
May 20, 1932 – Ameilia Earhart flew out of Newfoundland, Canada and landed near Londonderry, Ireland, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
May 21, 1881 – Nicknamed "the angel of the battlefield" for her work treating injured soldiers in The American Civil War, Clara Barton founds The American Red Cross after a trip to Europe, where she volunteered for The International Red Cross.
May 23, 1810 – Margaret Fuller was born in Cambridgeport, Mass. She would become the first American woman to work as a foreign correspondent. Her 1845 book, Women in the 19th Century, is considered a groundbreaking feminist statement and was the first of its kind.
May 24, 1844 – Samuel Morse sent the first official telegraph message from the Capital building in Washington D.C. He asked "What had God wrought?"
May 28, 1961 – London lawyer Peter Berenson founds Amnesty International after writing his famous Forgotten Prisoners newspaper article in May 1961after reading about two students in a Portuguese cafe who had been imprisoned after raising their glasses "to liberty."