With the passing of Norman Lear, America has lost a uniquely iconic legend. I met the award-winning television writer and producer in 2015 at a political fundraiser at his home. I was honored that Lear introduced me to his 50 guests. As I stood in the center of his living room speaking to this group, I could not help but think about the icons of Civil Rights that stood in the same spot. Indeed, during the tumultuous era of the Civil Rights Movement, Lear had hosted Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and dozens of other social justice activists.
In a 2019 tribute to the legendary producer, Norman Lear, ABC featured a live re-enactment of “The Jeffersons” and “All in the Family.”
In the context of activism and race men, Lear should be mentioned in the same breath as Martin Luther King, Jr. No one in Hollywood did more to stimulate discussions on the sensitive issue of race like Lear did. At the heart of the hit show Archie Bunker was race.
The main character played by Carroll O’Connor was a bigot, a homophobe, and a misogynist. And, it was his political incorrectness and candor that endeared him to millions of fans. Indeed, this was the first time in American television that controversial issues were discussed so consistently and casually. It was oddly refreshing. And, as he stated in the introduction to the 2019 ABC special, we are still grappling with some of the same issues today as we did 50 years ago.
Lear went on to produce the classic 1970s sitcoms: All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude. For African Americans, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times were not only riveting entertainment, these shows and their characters became a part of our American identity.
What Lear did in the 1970s seems impossible to do in 2023. He was able to portray the acute pain, suffering, and struggle of minorities in a way that appealed to the masses. He was able to raise the consciousness of race issues without pointing fingers.
For example, The Jefferson’s featured the first interracial marriage on television. And, I am sure, during the first episodes of the sitcom, this marriage made many Americans uncomfortable. But, the more we watched the more we grew to accept, like, and love, Tom and Helen Willis. Indeed, Lear’s brilliance was his capacity to fuse entertainment and social commentary—to find humor in serious issues concerning social justice.
During a guest lecture in one of my classes at Cal Poly Pomona, I asked the great British TV Director, Terry Hughes, what he thought about Norman Lear’s legacy. He said if there were a Mt. Rushmore for iconic figures in television that Lear should be the first person carved on it.
Outside of the entertainment world, Lear was just as committed to righting the wrongs in our society. In 1981, he founded the People for the American Way, an organization committed to embracing progressive ideals. One of the organization’s co-founders was African American Congresswoman and civil rights leader, Barbara Jordan.
In 2017, during the first year of the Donald Trump presidency, Lear was a Kennedy Center honoree for his lifetime achievements in performing arts and to American culture. Consistent with his values and activism, at 94 years old, he boycotted the White House’s planned reception for him.
Since 2017, our nation has been mired in a toxic and counterproductive “Us v. Them” identity crisis. In Lear’s spirit, we should use our platforms to stimulate healthy dialogue and civility. We need to cultivate more leaders like Lear–ones who have the capacity to help us heal, coalesce, and evolve.
We have lost one of America’s true pioneers of entertainment and change agents for social justice. We should all be inspired by Lear’s courageous legacy.
Renford Reese is a professor in the Political Science Department at Cal Poly Pomona. He is the founder of the Prison Education Project, the author of 11 books, and producer of 8 documentaries.