07/19/2012 11:20 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2012

Picking the Greatest American Progressives: A Book Review


When I was a sophomore years back at City College in New York I read a book that changed my life. It was Critics and Crusaders by historian Charles A. Madison, a collection of biographical sketches of Americans who made extraordinary contributions to promoting freedom and human rights. It included many people who, at that time, I had heard little or nothing about, like abolitionist Wendell Phillips, populist politician John Peter Altgeld, radical socialist Daniel De Leon, and writer-women's rights advocate Margaret Fuller. These people implanted themselves in my mind and were a force that helped lead me into a career doing grassroots community organizing and then teaching and researching methods of social change for almost a half-century.

I recently came upon a newly published book that I consider a genuine sequel, Peter Dreier's The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, New York). Dreier profiles 100 notables as compared to Madison's 18, but his sketches have a similar impact and reveal a wider range of contributions to human progress. There are organizers and activists like Martin Luther King and Jane Addams, cultural and intellectual leaders like Lincoln Steffens and I.F. Stone, and politicians like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bella Abzug. Some are widely accepted as leaders by people on the left (Eugene Debs, Clarence Darrow), and a few are less acclaimed in that way (Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson) The array of personages covers varied ethnic identities and ideological leanings. The narratives are crisp and readable, reflecting Professor Dreier's earlier career as a journalist.

I was glad to see Jerry Wurf's name in the group. When I was vice-president of my AFSCME local at the New York City Youth Board in the '50s, Wurf directed District 37, the city-wide union operation. Untiring in pushing for workers' rights, he was everywhere, building the union and scoring victories. I admired his skill and courage enormously, as did my co-workers, and I was delighted to see him go on to become President of national AFSCME. There he played a crucial role in energizing a vast leap forward in unionizing public employees across the country -- from teachers to prison guards to city planners. He was resolute about including African-American employees and seeing to it that they had leadership roles.

Wurf was the lone voice in the AFL-CIO Executive Council opposing George Meany's dogged commitment to the Vietnam War. It took uncommon guts to tangle with Meany on an issue like this. I thought this extraordinary man had been all but forgotten in recent years and was thrilled to see that that Dreier didn't suffer a memory loss about him. Also, Dreier's memory held to Bayard Rustin, a behind-the-scenes manager of the whole civil rights movement, whose curtained contribution is documented here. Likewise, it's good to see open acknowledgement of Noam Chomsky, a monumental progressive intellectual who the public media have been conspiring to railroad into oblivion through neglect. A band of other little known and insufficiently appreciated strivers for human progress is exposed to the light of day in the book (many readers will likely ask, "Who are Lewis Hine and Harry Hay?").

Some major figures are widely recognized by the public but only for part of what they represented and accomplished. Their dissident side is passed over. As an example, Helen Keller is esteemed for overcoming the disability of blindness and deafness, with the aid of Anne Sullivan, and then going on to graduate from Radcliffe magna cum laude. She later was acclaimed as a writer and lecturer and a major advocate for the blind, serving as the chief spokesperson for the American Foundation for the Blind. Less known, but highlighted in this book, is that she was an outspoken socialist activist, fighter for women's rights, avid pacifist opposing WWI, and an early supporter of the NAACP. Her social service for the blind caught the public's eye; her campaign for equality and social justice slid out of view.

The same holds true for Jane Addams. The public is well aware of her social work activities in settlement houses, including the founding of Hull House in Chicago to help the poor and immigrants improve their lives. Dreier rounds this out by detailing how Addams trained neighborhood residents to organize and exert pressure to gain benefits. Addams spoke out for workers in their struggle to unionize, was a leader in the progressive era reform movement, campaigned for suffrage, and was a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. She joined in establishing the Women's Peace Party to oppose WWI. Her opposition to the war was rudely decried, but she later won the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.

I like the way this list is different from many other compilations of American "greats" (like TIME magazine and Discovery Channel offerings). Those lists are populated with names like Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth, and John Wayne. These people, it strikes me, were out to make a buck, and they sometimes stuck in their side pocket a reminder to improve humanity. Dreier is clear in his criteria for inclusion. He sought out people dedicated to social justice and to "using their talents to help achieve important progressive change." This makes the narratives consistently instructive and always gripping and inspiring.

I fear some readers will object to several of the names in the book. Teddy Roosevelt carried out imperialist wars, FDR imprisoned Japanese-American civilians in internment camps, and Lyndon Johnson expanded and intensified the Vietnam War. These men can claim valuable achievements, but how do their unjust misdeeds figure in? A friend of mine was particularly vehement about the inclusion of Johnson. He acknowledged the significance of the Great Society program but believed this was fatally besmirched by the Vietnam War with its record of some 16 million killed, injured, or displaced, and the destruction of America's moral position in the world. There was also chronologically a coup in Brazil, the Dominican Republic invasion, mass massacres in Indonesia, and the Colonels' coup in Greece, all implemented on President Johnson's orders.

This raises for me the question of criteria for excluding a nominee. The author writes that none of the people in his compilation are saints, that everyone has troubles and makes mistakes. His stance is to be tolerant of missteps and foibles. While Dreier doesn't want to limit his choices to saints, is he willing, nevertheless, to banish devils? Can an action be so unacceptable and odious that it outweighs positive factors and prohibits inclusion? Is Dreier willing to use a smell test? I ask these questions recognizing that compiling a list like this can be grueling and controversial. No two people will put together an identical cohort. Dreier took his stab at it, and we should be grateful to have what he came up with.

The book lists the cast of notables chronologically by date of birth. There is no alphabetical listing I could find. This makes it tough to use the volume, as I experienced in doing this review. I expect the author will add an index in the next edition. Also, it would be useful to readers to somewhere group individuals by their major area of activity -- civil rights, human rights, labor rights, anti-poverty, anti-war, environment protection, consumer protection, and the like.

I hope progressives and others will read this book and, more importantly, give a copy to their sons, daughters, and grandchildren. With so many right-wing and callous influences saturating our culture, the book serves as a wholesome antidote. I said earlier about how Critics and Crusaders had affected me. It could be that in fifty-years-plus some scarred veterans of the human rights struggle will be ruminating on how Dreier's book had impacted their careers and their views about what things are important in life.