Ira Glasser is one of the most consequential civil liberties figures in American history.
He ran the ACLU as its executive director from 1978 until his retirement in 2001. In the process, he transformed the organization from a small, $4 million nonprofit with offices in a few cities into a household name with an annual budget of $45 million, a $30 million endowment, and staffed offices in every state, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico.
This week is the 50th anniversary of when Glasser started with the ACLU on May 1, 1967. In this exclusive, wide-ranging interview with So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast, he shares how he went from a part-time math teacher with no law degree to the leader of one of America’s most prominent legal organizations.
His story takes us to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, where in 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and inspired a generation of civil rights activists, to the offices of Robert Kennedy, where the junior U.S. senator spoke with a young Glasser and convinced him to take a job with the ACLU — a job he initially didn’t want.
In explaining how he got from “here to there,” Glasser puts on a master class in principled free speech advocacy, effective management strategies, and how following your passions can lead you to delightfully unexpected places.
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