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Peter Dreier


The 15 Greatest Americans Of The 20th Century (PHOTOS)

Posted: 07/23/2012 8:27 am

I wrote The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame [Nation Books, $19.99] to celebrate achievements of the people and movements that have made America a more humane, inclusive, and democratic country. But I not only wanted to educate and inspire people by offering profiles of these fascinating pioneers. I also wanted to provoke debate and controversy by encouraging readers to think about what defines someone as "great" and how progressive movements often beat the odds and bring about significant and lasting change.

You won't find Henry Ford, John Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Walt Disney, Louis B. Mayer, Sam Walton, Ronald Reagan, Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth, or Billy Graham in my book. They may have been great in their specific fields of endeavor but they did not contribute to making America a more just, equal, or democratic society. Most of them, in fact, actively opposed movements for social justice.

Back in 1900, people who called for women's suffrage, laws protecting the environment and consumers, an end to lynching, the right of workers to form unions, a progressive income tax, a federal minimum wage, old-age insurance, the eight-hour workday, and government-subsidized health care and housing were considered impractical idealists, utopian dreamers, or dangerous socialists. Now we take these ideas for granted. The radical ideas of one generation have become the common sense of the next.

We also sometimes change our views about the people who espoused once-radical ideas. Today we view Rev. Martin Luther King as something of a saint. His birthday is now a national holiday. His name adorns schools and streets. But in his day, many people in positions of power, and not just southern racists, considered King a dangerous troublemaker. He was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media.

We stand on the shoulders of earlier generations of reformers, radicals, and idealists who challenged the status quo of their day. Some of the 100 people in my book are famous, but many more are not well-known by the general public, but should be. A few of the "greatest" Americans - like Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, and Theodor Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) -- are household names for their professional accomplishments, but few people know that they were also radicals.

Some of the 100 people were more radical than others. Quite a few came from privileged backgrounds but dedicated their lives to creating a society that would erase class, racial, and gender privilege. These individuals were all heroes, but they were not saints. They made strategic mistakes, had personal flaws, and reflected some of the prejudices of their times.

These 100 people helped move America forward by organizing movements, pushing for radical reforms, popularizing progressive ideas, and spurring others to action. They expressed their commitment to change in three ways. Some were organizers and activists who mobilized or led grassroots movements for democracy and equality. Others were writers, musicians, artists, editors, scientists, lawyers, athletes, and intellectuals who challenged prevailing ideas and inspired Americans to believe that a better society was possible. Finally, some were politicians--presidents, members of Congress, mayors and city council members, and some who ran for office and lost -- who gave voice to social justice movements in the corridors of power and translated their concerns into new laws that changed society. Quite a few of the 100 greatest Americans played more than one of these roles. The leaders, organizations, and movements that made this a better society all had to learn how to balance the tension between outsiders and insiders.

The 20th century is a remarkable story of progressive accomplishments against overwhelming odds. But it is not a tale of steady progress. At best, it is a chronicle of taking two steps forward, then one step backward, then two more steps forward. The successful battles and social improvements came about in fits and starts. When pathbreaking laws are passed--such as the Nineteenth Amendment (which granted women suffrage in 1920), the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (which created the minimum wage), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which outlawed many forms of racial discrimination), and the Clean Air Act of 1970--we often forget that those milestones took decades of work by thinkers, activists, and politicians. The people I profile in the book were not sprinters; they were long-distance runners for justice.

Each generation of Americans faces a different set of economic, political, and social conditions. There are no easy formulas for challenging injustice and promoting democracy. But unless we know this history, we will have little understanding of how far we have come, how we got here, and how progress was made by the moral convictions and courage of the greatest Americans.

I'm often asked who are my "favorites" among the 100 people I've profiled in the book. It was hard enough to get the list down to 100, much less rank them. All were giants, but some of them were taller than others in terms of bending the arc of history. So I've pulled out 15 people who represent the most influential progressives of the last century and provided short summaries about their lives and legacies.

Of course, the story doesn't end in 2000. In the last dozen years, grassroots movements have continued to push and pull America in a positive direction, often against difficult odds. The story of progressive change is a continuing one. That's why the book includes final chapter that introduces a few young activists who are strong candidates to make the Social Justice Hall of Fame for the 21st century.

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  • Eugene Debs (1855-1926)

    Through his leadership of the labor movement, his five campaigns as a Socialist candidate for president and his spellbinding and brilliant oratory, Debs popularized ideas about civil liberties, workers' rights, peace and justice and government regulation of big business. In 1893 he organized the nation's first industrial union, the American Railway Union, to unite all workers within one industry, and he led the Pullman Strike of 1894. In 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920, Debs ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket. By 1912, about 1,200 Socialist Party members held public office in 340 cities, including seventy-nine mayors in cities including Milwaukee, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Reading, and Schenectady. They fought to end corruption, tax wealthy property owners, create municipal electricity and water utilities, hold down transit fares, establish building codes, expand municipal parks and recreation programs, improve local schools, and hire competent administrators to run municipal agencies to clean up the corruption and inefficiency. Debs' speeches and writing influenced popular opinion and the platforms of the major party candidates. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt adopted watered-down versions of many of Debs' ideas, but without giving him and the Socialists credit. Debs' 1920 campaign took place while he was in Atlanta's federal prison for opposing World War I; he won nearly one million votes.

  • Florence Kelley (1859-1932)

    In the first quarter of the 20th century, Kelley did more than any other American to rectify the awful conditions of child labor. Kelley was a leading organizer against sweatshops and an advocate for working women, She helped lead the battle for groundbreaking local, state, and federal labor laws, including laws mandating a minimum wage and an eight-hour workday. To this end, she became a pioneer in conducting social and statistical research into workplace abuses and in developing strategies--such as factory inspections and consumer organizing--to put pressure on state legislatures and Congress to improve working conditions. Part of the first generation of women to attend college, she joined the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, was active in women's suffrage and was a founder of the NAACP. She believed that women with her class privileges had a moral duty to push government and society to protect vulnerable people. "We that are strong," she wrote as a young woman, "let us bear the infirmities of the weak." Kelley worked at settlement houses in Chicago and New York from 1891 to 1926. In 1893 Governor John Altgeld appointed her Illinois's first chief factory inspector, a position she used to expose abusive working conditions, especially for children. She successfully lobbied for the creation of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics so that reformers would have adequate information about the condition of workers. In 1908 she worked with attorney Louis Brandeis (later a Supreme Court justice) to gather sociological and medical evidence for Muller v. Oregon and in 1917 gathered similar information for Bunting v. Oregon to make the case for an eight-hour workday. As the head of the National Consumers League, Kelley increased public awareness of terrible working and living educating and mobilized consumers to boycott clothing produced in sweatshops - a tactic that human rights groups later adopted.

  • Jane Addams (1860-1935)

    Addams pioneered the settlement house movement and was an important Progressive Era urban reformer, the "mother" of American social work, a founder of the NAACP, a champion of women's suffrage, an antiwar crusader and winner of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize. Addams carved out a new way for women to become influential in public affairs. In 1889 she and her college friend, Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940), founded Hull House in Chicago's immigrant slums, inspired by similar efforts she had seen in England. Initially, the women at Hull House took care of children, nursed the sick, offered kindergarten classes and evening classes for immigrant adults. They then added an art gallery, public kitchen, gym, swimming pool, coffeehouse, cooperative boarding club for girls, book bindery, art studio, music school, drama group, circulating library and employment bureau. Hull House soon became a hub of social activism around labor and immigrant rights, crusades against political corruption, slum housing, unsafe workplaces and child labor. It was the inspiration for other settlement houses in cities across the country.

  • W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

    Du Bois was a civil rights activist, sociologist, historian, polemicist and editor. He was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard and a founder of the NAACP. In his studies and books he challenged America's ideas about race and helped lead the early crusade for civil rights. Du Bois's intellectual and political battles with Booker T. Washington shaped the ongoing debate about the nature of racism and the struggle for racial justice, summarized in his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), in which he described blacks' "double consciousness" and famously predicted, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." From 1910 to 1934 he served as editor of The Crisis, the NAACP's monthly magazine, which became a highly visible and often controversial forum for criticism of white racism, lynching and segregation, and for information about the status of black Americans. It gave exposure to many young African-American writers, poets and agitators. Du Bois was a Socialist, although he often disagreed with the party, particularly on matters of race. His writings had enormous influence on civil rights activists and on the burgeoning fields of black history and black studies.

  • Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)

    Sanger worked as a nurse among poor women on New York City's Lower East Side and became an advocate for women's health. In 1912 she gave up nursing and dedicated herself to the distribution of information about birth control (a term she's credited with inventing), risking imprisonment for violating the Comstock Act, which forbade distribution of birth control devices or information. She wrote articles on health for the Socialist Party paper <em>The Call</em> and wrote several books, including <em>What Every Girl Should Know</em> (1916) and <em>What Every Mother Should Know</em> (1916). In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, which eventually became Planned Parenthood. In 1916 she set up the first birth control clinic in the United States, and the following year she was arrested for "creating a public nuisance." Her activism helped change public opinion and led to changes in laws giving doctors the right to give birth control advice (and later, birth control devices) to patients.

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945)

    Nothing in FDR's early life would have led one to predict his remarkable accomplishments. Born to privilege, a distant cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, and a mediocre student at Harvard, he drew on his family connections to enter politics. But as president, FDR guided the nation through two of its biggest crises: the Great Depression and World War II. Taking office in March 1933, more than three years into the Depression, FDR inherited a nation that had lost faith in itself and in the social order. More than 13 million Americans were jobless, and most banks were closed. Right-wing demagogues competed with a flourishing radical movement of angry farmers, veterans, workers, and others for the loyalty of the American people and politicians. With close advisors like Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace providing the ideas, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (who was much more radical and more knowledgeable about social conditions) egging him on, and mass protest providing the political impetus, FDR instigated economic and social reforms (public works jobs, the minimum wage, Social Security, bank reform, workers' rights to unionize, farm relief) that saved and humanized capitalism, despite the barbs of many critics, including most newspapers and business leaders, who accused his New Deal agenda of leading America to socialism. FDR's combination of optimism, political savvy, and willingness to experiment gave Americans confidence in themselves and reminded them that the national government could be a positive force in their daily lives.

  • A. Philip Randolph (1889 - 1979)

    Randolph founded the first African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in the 1920s. A leading socialist writer, orator and civil rights pioneer, he built bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. He edited the Socialist newspaper The Messenger. In an early editorial, Randolph wrote: "The history of the labor movement in America proves that the employing classes recognize no race lines. They will exploit a White man as readily as a Black man... They will exploit any race or class in order to make profits. The combination of Black and White workers will be a powerful lesson to the capitalists of the solidarity of labor." Randolph helped bring African-Americans into the labor movement while also criticizing union leaders for excluding blacks. In 1941, as the country was gearing up for war, Randolph threatened to organize a march on Washington to protest blacks' exclusion from well-paid defense industry jobs. The strategy worked. In June 1941 FDR signed an executive order that called for an end to discrimination in defense plant jobs, America's first "fair employment practices" reform. Randolph led the 1963 March on Washington, in which more than 250,000 Americans joined together under the slogan "Jobs and Freedom, "paving the way for the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

  • Earl Warren (1891-1974)

    Warren, chief justice from 1953 to 1969, took the Supreme Court in an unprecedented liberal direction. The Warren Court dramatically expanded civil rights and civil liberties. The Republican Warren used his considerable political skills to guarantee that the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was unanimous. In another landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Warren Court ruled that courts are required to provide attorneys for defendants in criminal cases who cannot afford their own lawyers. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the Court significantly expanded free speech by requiring proof of "actual malice" in libel suits against public figures. The 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision established the right to privacy and laid the groundwork for Roe v. Wade (1973). In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Court ruled that detained criminal suspects, prior to police questioning, must be informed of their constitutional right to an attorney and against self-incrimination. After serving as Alameda County district attorney, Warren was elected California's attorney general in 1938 and four years later was elected governor, serving until 1953. He approved the rounding up of Japanese-Americans into detention camps. In 1948 he was the Republican Party's unsuccessful vice presidential candidate on a ticket with Thomas Dewey. When Eisenhower nominated Warren to the Supreme Court, he thought he was appointing a conservative jurist and later reportedly said that it was the "biggest damn fool mistake" he'd ever made.

  • Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976)

    Robeson was perhaps the most all-around talented American of the twentieth century. He was an internationally renowned concert singer, actor, college football star and professional athlete, writer, linguist (he sang in twenty-five languages), scholar, orator, lawyer and activist in the civil rights, union and peace movements. Though he was one of the century's most famous figures, his name was virtually erased from memory by government persecution during the McCarthy era. The son of a runaway slave, Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated as valedictorian. Despite violence and racism from teammates, he won fifteen varsity letters in sports (baseball, football, basketball and track) and was twice named to the All-American Football Team. He attended Columbia Law School, then took a job with a law firm but quit when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He never practiced law again. In London, Robeson earned international acclaim for his lead role in Othello (1944). He starred in many plays and musicals and made eleven films, many with political themes. He promoted African independence, labor unions, friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union, African-American culture, civil liberties and Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's Germany. In 1945 he headed an organization that challenged Truman to support an antilynching law. Because of his political views, his performances were constantly harassed. In the late 1940s he was blacklisted. Most of his concerts were canceled, and his passport was revoked in 1950.

  • Walter Reuther (1907-1970)

    Reuther rose from the factory floor to help build the United Auto Workers into a major force in the auto industry, the labor movement and the left wing of the Democratic Party. He helped shape the modern labor movement, which created the first mass middle class. He led the 1937 sit-down at the General Motors factory in Flint, Michigan, a major turning point in labor history. After World War II he pushed for a large-scale conversion of the nation's industrial might to promote peace and full employment. In 1946 he led a 116-day strike against GM, calling for a 30 percent wage increase without an increase in the retail price of cars and challenged GM to "open its books." In 1948 GM agreed to a historic contract tying wage raises to the general cost-of-living and productivity increases. During his term as UAW president from 1946 until his death in 1970, the union grew to more than 1.5 million members and negotiated model grievance procedures, safety and health provisions, pensions, health benefits and "supplemental unemployment benefits" that lifted union members into the middle class and helped cushion the hardships of economic booms and busts. In the 1960s he led the labor movement's support for civil rights, and was an early ally of Cesar Chavez's effort to organize migrant farmworkers.

  • Pete Seeger (1919-)

    Seeger wrote or popularized "We Shall Overcome," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "If I Had a Hammer," "Guantanamera," "Wimoweh," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and other songs that inspired people to take action, including the songs of his friend Woody Guthrie, whose "This Land Is Your Land" is considered America's alternative national anthem.. On his own and as a member of the Almanac Singers and the Weavers (which had several top-selling hits, including "Good Night, Irene," despite their opposition to commercialism), Seeger sang for unions, civil rights and antiwar groups, and other human rights causes in the United States and around the world. He introduced Americans to the music of other cultures and catalyzed the "folk revival" of the late 1950s and '60s. He was a founder of the Newport Folk Festival and Sing Out! magazine. He was also an environmental pioneer, founding the sloop Clearwater and raising consciousness and money to push government to clean up the Hudson River and other waterways. Many of his songs have been recorded by other artists and have influenced generations of performers, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Birds, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Morello.

  • Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

    Friedan's book <em>The Feminine Mystique</em> (1963) helped change American attitudes toward women's equality, popularized the phrase "sexism" and catalyzed the modern feminist movement. In the 1940s and 1950s she worked as a left-wing labor journalist before focusing her writing and activism on women's rights. She co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966, which she viewed as a civil rights movement for women. Five years later she (along with Gloria Steinem, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm) created the National Women's Political Caucus to expand women's participation in politics, including running for public office.

  • Cesar Chavez (1927-93)

    Building on his experiences as a farmworker and community organizer in the barrios of San Jose, Oakland and Los Angeles, Chavez did what many thought impossible--organize the most vulnerable Americans, immigrant farmworkers, into a successful union, improving conditions for California's lettuce and grape pickers. Founded in 1960s, the United Farm Workers pioneered the use of consumer boycotts, enlisting other unions, churches and students to join in a nationwide boycott of nonunion grapes, wine and lettuce. Chavez led demonstrations, voter registration drives, fasts, boycotts and other nonviolent protests to gain public support. The UFW won a campaign to enact California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 1975, giving farmworkers collective bargaining rights they lacked (and still lack) under federal labor law. Although the UFW membership and influence later declined, the organization inspired and trained several generations of organizers who remain active in today's progressive movement. By registering Hispanic voters and organizing immigrants, Chavez and the UFW laid the groundwork for their growing political involvement and today's immigrant rights movement. Barack Obama adopted the UFW's slogan, "Si Se Puede" - "Yes, We Can" - in his 2008 presidential campaign.

  • Rev. Martin Luther King (1929-1968)

    King helped change America's conscience, not only about civil rights but also about economic justice, poverty and war. As an inexperienced young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, King was reluctantly thrust into the leadership of the bus boycott. During the 382-day boycott, King was arrested and abused and his home was bombed, but he emerged as a national figure and honed his leadership skills. In 1957 he helped launch the SCLC to spread the civil rights crusade to other cities. He helped lead local campaigns in Selma, Birmingham and other cities, and sought to keep the fractious civil rights movement together, including the NAACP, Urban League, SNCC, CORE and SCLC. Between 1957 and 1968 King traveled more than 6 million miles, spoke more than 2,500 times and was arrested at least twenty times while preaching the gospel of nonviolence. The struggle for civil rights radicalized King into a fighter for economic and social justice. During the 1960s King became increasingly committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. He was in Memphis in 1968 to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated. In 1964, at 35, King was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Some civil rights activists worried that his opposition to the Vietnam War, announced in 1967, would create a backlash against civil rights, but instead it helped turned the tide of public opinion against the war.

  • Billie Jean King (1943-)

    Like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, King used her celebrity as an athlete as a platform to agitate for broader social changes. She was at the top of women's tennis for nearly two decades. She won her first Wimbledon singles title in 1966, piled up dozens of singles and doubles titles before retiring in 1984 and was ranked number one in the world for five years. She founded the Women's Tennis Association, the Women's Sports Foundation and WomenSports magazine. She championed Title IX legislation, which equalized opportunities for women on and off the playing field and has revolutionized women's sports. In 1972 she signed a controversial statement, published in Ms., that she had had an abortion, putting her on the front lines of the battle for reproductive rights. In 1972 she became the first woman to be named Sports Illustrated "Sportsperson of the Year." In 1981 she was the first major female professional athlete to come out as a lesbian. She has consistently spoken out for women and their right to earn comparable money in tennis and other sports as well as in the larger society.