In 1978, ACLU executive director Ira Glasser had to explain to the press and to the public the ACLU’s choice to defend the free speech rights of neo-Nazi protestors marching in Skokie, Illinois. Over 40 years later, the new documentary “Mighty Ira” shows Glasser looking back on that choice in the light of similar protests and riots that rocked Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Mighty Ira,” for which TheWrap has the exclusive first look trailer, profiles Glasser and explains how he is one of the unsung champions of civil rights and liberties. As the executive director of the ACLU between 1978-2001, becoming the director in the immediate fallout of the Skokie case, Glasser helped expand the organization from being on the verge of bankruptcy into the civil liberties juggernaut it is today.
But the Skokie case would define his career and proved to be hugely controversial as he came face to face with Holocaust survivors who were appalled that a civil rights organization would back neo-Nazis of all people.
“My top priority when I got to the national ACLU, I thought was going to be racial justice. Actually my top priority turned out to be organizational survival,” Glasser says in the trailer. “It highlighted, why would you ever want to defend the rights of people like that?”
Glasser said in a previous interview about the Skokie case that he didn’t think today’s ACLU would take the case of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi protestors, but he defended his decision to do so in the ’70s, adding that he “got a lot of s—.”
“Jews had good reason to be afraid of people marching around with swastikas,” Glasser told Spiked in February. “But if you wanted to take that seriously you had to understand that what happened in Germany didn’t happen because there was a good First Amendment there. It happened because there wasn’t.”
“Mighty Ira” reconnects with Glasser as he reflects on memories of Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers breaking the color barrier in baseball and being inspired to take up the cause of racial injustice. But it also puts him face to face with a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor who sits down with Glasser and explain to him why his actions during the Skokie case evoked such painful memories for him.
In addition to Glasser, “Mighty Ira” features interviews with civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, Ben Stern, David Goldberger, Philippa Strum, Nadine Strossen, Norman Siegel, Michael Myers, Roger Craver, Noam Dworman, Sheila Suess Kennedy, Jay Nordlinger and Charlene Stern.
“Mighty Ira” was directed and produced by Nico Perrino, Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby, and the filmmakers are making the documentary available on streaming platforms beginning this October.
Check out the exclusive first trailer above.