Lyle Mercer was born in Prosser, Washington and grew up in Seattle. He attended Central Washington University in the early 1940s prior to joining the Army Air Corps in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Washed out of flying, he served as an administrative officer and trained as a paratrooper during two years service in Europe. His wife, Barbara, was a flight nurse.
In 1946, Mercer entered the University of Washington, received a B.A. in political science and trained to be a teacher. Politicized by his wartime experiences, he served on the board of the state Young Democrats until he was expelled for criticising President Truman’s emerging Cold War politices. He joined Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party and by 1948 chaired the state Young Porgressives and was a candidate for land commissioner.
In 1948, State Representative Albert Canwell’s Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities launched hearings on the alleged communist sympathies of several University of Washington professors. Mercer was among those who organized the Student Organization for Academic Freedom (SOAR) to protest the Canwell committee.
In the 1960s, he organized opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which began hearings in Washington State in mid 1950s. Eventually he staffed the Northwest chapter of a national group calling for HUAC’s abolition. Mercer was elected to the state board of the American Civil Liberties Union, chairing its anti-HUAC committee.
Although a socialist, he never joined the Communist or the Socialist Parties, finding the former too docrinaire, the latter too inept. As an active “fellow traveler,” Mercer suffered constant FBI surveillance and job harassment. He was blackballed from teaching by the UW Education Department (in a secret reference file), and fired from other jobs because of his political activities. Yet Mercer remained active in various peace, freedom, and economic justice groups, including Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), where Barbara worked on housing discrimination. He was co-chair of Vietnam Summer one year, chaired the state Peace and Freedom Party. Barbara was the longtime secretary-treasurer of the Seattle Chapter of Women Act for Peace.
Mercer also has been active in the drive for universal health care coverage since the 1960s. He worked for the enactment of the Health Security Act (Kennedy-Corman bill). The members of Group Health Cooperative elected him a trustee for 21 years. He also served on the board of the Cooperative League of the USA. A onetime trustee of the People’s Memorial Association, the nation’s oldest and largest funeral services cooperative, he served as its director until his 1987 retirement. At the age 85 when this interview was recorded, Mercer was still a member of such diverse cause groups as the Arab American Anti-Discrimination League, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Veterans for Peace.
Lyle Mercer shared his memories of activism in the peace movement, civil liberties campaigns, and against HUAC in an interview with Trevor Griffey and Daren Salter on August 15, 2006. Video editing by Daren Salter.