People For the American Way

We’re Honored by Media Tributes to Our Founder Norman Lear

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We’re Honored by Media Tributes to Our Founder Norman Lear

After the passing of People For founder Norman Lear, we were moved by the kind words and heartfelt messages that appeared in many media outlets. The articles and op-eds celebrating his legacy serve as powerful reminders of Norman’s impact on entertainment and activism. We couldn’t possibly share them all here, but wanted to highlight a few memorable examples.

The Nation’s Joan Walsh Discussed Her Last Conversation with Lear

He was especially proud of founding People for the American Way, the liberal avatar of American freedom he stood up in 1981, the year American politics undeniably became dominated by the religious right. “All these years later, 30 some years later, I don’t wake up many mornings, read the newspaper and not thank God there’s a People for the American Way there,” he told us. Not long after we spoke in Los Angeles, he handed the leadership to Svante Myrick, the former mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., a Black millennial warmed by Lear’s humor, kindness, and political passion.

“I saw him three weeks ago,” Myrick told me. “Just after the elections. He wanted to know: How did we do in Ohio? In Virginia?,” where progressives notched big wins. Oh, he already knew that, the PFAW president told me. “He wanted to know, did we have staff out there? How did they do?

The Hollywood Reporter Noted Lear’s Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion

Lear’s passion for social equity and justice led him to extend his reach beyond his day job as a television producer. In 1981, he founded the civic engagement nonprofit People for the American Way, an organization that continues to work to defend progressive ideals in democracy. “I think there’s a thread through all of Norman’s professional life,” says executive vice president Marge Baker. “His work in entertainment was based on his real concern about the frightening divisiveness and intolerance in our society, and he used his artistry and genius to help people understand what was going on. He thought if he could make them laugh, they would listen.”

TheGrio Recognized Lear’s Legacy of Activism

In 1980, Lear founded People For the American Way, a progressive advocacy group he created to combat the rise of a Christian right-wing that was dominating American politics.

After serving in World War II and flying more than 50 bomb missions over Nazi Germany, including some in which he was escorted by the all-Black Tuskegee Airmen, Lear returned to the United States.

He quickly became “disappointed and disheartened” when he found “conservative voices saying that the Jewish people…[and] progressives were not true Americans [and] were not patriots,” recalled Svante Myrick, a friend of Lear and president of the organization he founded more than 40 years ago.

Myrick noted that when Lear created People For the American Way, which is based in Washington, D.C., then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan was rising to dominance, and the United Kingdom’s Margaret Thatcher had only recently become the country’s first female prime minister.

“This Christian right-wing nationalism was beginning to dominate our politics,” Myrick told the Grio.

“Even though [Lear] found enormous success through ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘Sanford and Son’… he founded our organization, People For the American Way, to create a home for people really of all stripes,” he explained.

Lear’s mission was to create a political engine to fight against the idea that one’s political beliefs defined whether or not one was a patriot.

“He wanted to make a home for the freedom of speech, to protect the rights of those who are different, to protect the rights of those who are minorities,” said Myrick.

Forty-three years later, PFAW has been on the frontlines of the country’s biggest political battles, including most recently, the fight for voting rights and reproductive justice after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending nearly 50 years of federally protected abortion access.

“After decades of progress, we’re actually seeing a dangerous resurgence,” Myrick said of Christian far-right political figures and ideologies that are shaping policies across the country.

Mother Jones’ David Corn Offered a Personal Appreciation

Norman was an early participant in the nation’s culture wars—but as a positive and witty warrior. His early TV hits in the 1970s injected social issues into primetime network sitcoms for the first time, poking fun at bigotry, hatred, and small-mindedness. A key value all his storylines advanced was tolerance. Naturally, he was aghast to see at that time the rise of the religious right—most notably, the Moral Majority led by Jerry Falwell—and its powerful merger of fundamentalist intolerance and politics.

As he recounts in his wonderful memoir, Even This I Get to Experienceone day he was watching the highly popular televangelist Jimmy Swaggart (not yet disgraced in a prostitution scandal) and saw him ask his viewers to pray for the “removal” of a Supreme Court justice. Requesting good Christians to beseech God for the death of a justice pushed Norman over the edge. Soon thereafter he created a public service announcement with an actor portraying a hard-hat worker standing next to a forklift who says straight into the camera:

We’re a religious family, but that don’t mean we see things the same way politically. Now, here come certain preachers on radio and TV and in the mail, telling us on a bunch of political issues that there’s just one Christian position, and implying if we don’t agree we’re not good Christians. So, my son is a bad Christian on two issues. My wife is a good Christian on those issues, but she’s a bad Christian on two others… [M]aybe there’s something wrong when people, even preachers, suggest that other people are good Christians or bad Christians depending on their political views. That’s not the American way.

Whoa, his friends told Norman. You’re Jewish, rich, and a Hollywood top dog, and you want to go to war on your own against the Christian right? Norman recognized his pals were right. He recruited prominent religious leaders to endorse this spot: Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame; Rev. Jimmy Allen, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (yes, you read that right—the last moderate to hold that post); William Sloane Coffin, a prominent liberal Episcopalian clergyman; Charles Bergstrom, the spokesperson for the Lutheran Church; and others.

With the support of these folks (including Stanley Sheinbaum), he organized People for the American Way, a nonprofit to advance liberal causes and values, and barnstormed across the nation raising money for the new outfit. PFAW eventually bought time to play the PSA on a Washington, DC, television station. That landed Norman and former Iowa Sen. Harold Hughes, a Democrat, evangelical Christian, and PFAW supporter, on the Today show. Norman’s group was now officially on the map. More PSAs followed (including several directed by Jonathan Demme, who would go on to fame as the director of The Silence of the Lambs). Norman produced a blistering half-hour documentary on the Moral Majority that indicted the extremist organization by showing the speeches and sermons delivered by its officials. Burt Lancaster narrated the film. (Today, PFAW is a vital piece of the progressive infrastructure; among its many activities, it funds the essential Right Wing Watch.)

Norman’s Final Request was That People Honor Him by Supporting People For the American Way

In this time of high stakes and great challenges to our democracy, we invite you to make a contribution in Norman’s honor.


Activism, Norman Lear