2020 has been a doozy. We’ve seen race riots, police brutality fully exposed, many, many, many deaths of well loved classic celebrities and of course that evil bastard Corona which has disrupted our lives so badly and taken so many lives that it’s not even funny.
We’ve endured a lot this year but in some ways, specifically regarding the heated issues of racial injustice has only just resurfaced from the civil rights movement where it was on full display. The Jeffersons, one of the most iconic sitcoms on television featuring All in the Family recurring characters George and Louise “Weezy” Jefferson moving away from The Bunkers to the east side of Manhattan, New York in a deluxe apartment in the sky was not a sitcom that was shy in discussing race.
There were episodes dealing with the interracial marriage of Tom and Helen Willis, an “Uncle Tom” versus an educated, well spoken black man, remembering where you came from versus assimilation etc. but no episode of this show hit harder on the subject than “The First Store” season 6 episode 23. This episode is a flashback to 1968, where George tries to get a loan to open up his first dry cleaning store which he names “Handy Dandy Cleaners” thankfully Louise gives him the name “Jefferson Cleaners”.
The episode was set in 1968 and in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. Lionel Jefferson, George and Louise’s only son represents this aspect of the period as a militant marching and fighting against racial injustice. Lionel plays a particularly key role in this episode as the voice of the very vocal militants of the time and now. Outspoken, angry and at the same time disheartened about the way his country treats him and his people, this Lionel is a far cry from the guy years later who would not only shed the more militant aspects of his personality but also go on to marry a biracial girl and blend easily into the Willis family with no issues besides his own father’s disgust and jokes at their expense.
All three Jeffersons are different in this episode, in fact. As far a cry as Lionel Jefferson is in 1968 from the one we know, this Louise is a maid and dressed quite down from the more glamorous one we know and then there’s George: Not only does this version have hair on top of his normally bald head but here’s a George whose so desperate to get the loan from this obnoxious, racially biased and a bit prejudice loan officer that when the man uses the normal microaggressions and treats him as if he’s one of “the good ones” George grins and bares it, a far cry from the guy who would normally scream “Honky!” and throw him out on his butt. But this is a George whose broke, out of a job and needs to provide for his family.
The episode really comes to a head after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. leads to looting and riots(sound familiar?) and now this more subdued and easy going George lets out the fury and becomes the George Jefferson we love to hate and hate to love. He now takes on Lionel’s more militant and angry persona and after a confrontation with the ignorant banker who refers to the looters as “animals” George has had it and throws the turkey out on his flat behind. This now means that he must find another way to open up his dry cleaning store but he’s willing to take the chance rather than lose his dignity.
With both Lionel and George reacting purely on emotion only Louise is left to serve as the voice of reason and sanity. Lionel threatens to go out looting for a new television set and George not so jokingly volunteers to go with him, Louise puts her foot down and schools George on how Martin Luther King Jr. would feel about his and Lionel’s proving them right about blacks being animals. George comes to his senses and schools his son on fighting the system another way and tells him a story about when he was little how he wanted to be a fireman but his father told him that it’s impossible for a colored person to ever be in that field. It wasn’t until Martin Luther King Jr. became prominent that George felt like a person again and not just a color. The family then listens to a news excerpt of Martin Luther King’s “I’ve seen the mountain top” speech on the radio as we fade out.
This entire episode I believe could be done today and all you would have to do is replace Martin Luther King with George Floyd, the wardrobe and certain lingo of the day but other than that 95 percent of this would be exactly the same if the Jeffersons aired today. That’s how relevant this episode is. We’re still having these conversations about racial injustice and the pain of the loss of a person because of the color of their skin.
Here’s what I think is the biggest take away is though: Despite what many must believe due to all the pain we’ve gone through these last several months things have in fact changed a great deal, like George says “Maybe not as fast as we like” but we have made improvements because we speak up against these type of injustices and now in this era of social media we have more power to fight it more than ever. This is an incredibly relevant episode that’s also still very funny at times but that’s the hallmark of Norman Lear sitcoms, that dose of reality mixed in with good natured humor to make it go down easier.
Just remember that we have the power to make change because God gives us our voice.