10/15/2012 05:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Memo to Barack Obama and Social Justice Activists: New Book Explains Why Movements Need Insiders and Outsiders

What would have happened if, when Occupy Wall Streeters had taken over Zuccotti Square
and the OWS leaders went beyond direct action and pressured Obama to support their cause with specific demands?

If the president, acting in the tradition of courageous presidents like FDR, repeatedly amplified their call for equality by proposing to raise taxes on the rich, break up and/or have a government takeover of the big banks, stop foreclosures, and create more jobs, it's possible the Tea Party and its allies would have been overwhelmed by an inspired progressive populism.

As the 2012 elections approached, having tapped into the populist anger, Democrats would not be struggling to capture the votes of a few "independents" and Obama would not be worried about whether he or Biden put on a good debate performance.

I thought about this after reading Peter Dreier's new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. Dreier, a professor at Occidental College, has three central concepts. The radical ideas of one generation -- like Social Security or a woman's right to vote -- often become the common sense of the next generation. But to bring these ideas into the mainstream requires courageous and forward-looking people untethered to the establishment, who organize social movements, like those nameless Occupy Wall Streeters. Thirdly, social movements need leaders both within the movement as well as in the establishment -- most importantly public officials, even U.S presidents -- who can help inspire and legitimize the organizer's efforts.


That all movements need leaders is a lesson that Occupy Wall Street activists need to learn. OWS made a big impact, mostly by putting the issue of wealth disparity and corporate power on the national agenda and changing the nation's conversation, including the discourse of politicians and talking heads. But as Todd Gitlin shows in his new book Occupiers were suspicious of leaders -- not only politicians, but also movement leaders, concerned that big personalities within OWS might undermine the movement's egalitarian character.

After Obama was elected he discouraged his base from any independent political action. Instead he would encourage them to go home and wait for his emails. Most of the newly mobilized Obama supporters, being typical Americans, were quite happy to let Obama do the change, while they went to work, looked for work, entertained themselves, and attended to their families. Obama threw ACORN, a grassroots group whose 400,000 working class members supported him, under the bus.

Leadership or Grassroots: It's Not An Either/Or Proposition
Dreier profiles activists, organizers, athletes, writers, artists, musicians, judges, and politicians who played key roles in the key progressive movements of the 20th century -- unions, environmentalism, women's and gay rights, civil rights, peace, and many more. But he doesn't put these folks on a pedestal. Instead, he persuasively shows that charismatic, powerful, recognizable leaders create the visibility and continuity that grassroots movements need to succeed. Leaders strategize, create places for other activists to devise and debate competing ideas, and evaluate the movement's success. And when things go wrong, movement leaders can be held responsible and can hold others accountable. OWS will be hobbled unless that kind of leadership emerges.

Dreier celebrates these social justice movements and their leaders -- not only famous names like Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, Walter Reuther, and Martin Luther King but also lesser known (but no less important) leaders like Ella Baker (a behind-the-scenes Civil Rights movement organizer), Bayard Rustin (the gay, African-American pacifist, who organized the 1963 March Washington), Florence Kelly (a settlement house worker who led movements in the early 1900s to end child labor and improve working conditions for women); and Myles Horton (who founded the Highlander School as a training center for labor and civil rights organizers).

Dreier organizes the chapters chronologically so we can more easily see how it takes people from different professions to make a movement. In the early 1900s, American cities, powerful businessmen routinely bribed politicians, exploited immigrants from abroad and migrants from rural areas in the burgeoning factory system, and got rich from their privately owned garbage collection, street cleaning, and utility monopolies.

In response an urban reform movement began to grow. Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle exposed the dreadful conditions in Chicago's working class neighborhoods and slaughterhouses. Lincoln Steffen's The Shame of Cities revealed the widespread corruption that produced poorly paved, refuse-strewed streets, dangerous, dusty alleys, and ramshackle crowded firetraps called City Hospitals. Eugene Debs organized unions and Jane Adams settlement houses. The movement like the union and civil rights movement yet to come, needed another kind of help.

While theses leaders worked on the outside, they needed an "inside" strategy.

They sought and found presidents, mayors, and governors, who embraced their ideas and got legislation passed. These establishment figures, perhaps unintentionally, empowered grassroots movements.

While it was people like John Muir and other environmentalist outsiders that began the conservation movement they needed Theodore Roosevelt, who is on Dreier's list to legitimate it and pass laws.

After the Triangle Fire of 1911, which killed 146 women and raised the consciousness of Americans, particularly New Yorkers, about the awful conditions in sweatshops and tenement housing, it was Robert Wagner, a state legislator (and later a U.S. senator) from New York, who fought to enact the first reform laws -- laws that later became the model for the New Deal.

In his January 1935 State of The Union Address FDR, also on Dreier's list outlined the ways in which his administration would deepen the efforts begun under the first New Deal, including support for organized labor. Union organizers used FDR's word to support their organizing efforts. Roosevelt never urged workers to join unions but strongly supported the Wagner Act, which gave workers the right to organize. John L. Lewis, one of Dreier's greatest, who headed the United Mine Workers in the '30s, helped organize millions of workers into the CIO by telling them in organizing drives: "President Roosevelt wants you to join the union."

Dreier recalls LBJ's March 15, 1965 speech to Congress when he said, "There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem." He added, "It's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must over come the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice." He concluded, "And we shall overcome." Johnson's use of the words of the civil rights anthem help keep the movement energized.

Dreier brings his 100 greatest Americans to life with pithy, dramatic and colorful biographies and presents them warts and all. Margaret Sanger, whose pamphlet Family Limitation made a cameo appearance of the TV hit, Boardwalk Empire, was a daring fighter for women's rights and the founder of what's now called Planned Parenthood. But Dreier shows she also embraced eugenics, a movement of mostly racists and anti-immigrant citizens who wanted to sterilize "inferior" people.

Earl Warren is one of the hundred because as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the 1950s and '60s, his rulings and leadership advanced the civil rights movement. But as attorney general of California he favored the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (Minnesota), who inspired the community organizing movement, voted against the rights of gay people to marry.

To qualify for inclusion in the book, progressive leaders had to challenge the rich and powerful in a way that empowered social movements for democracy, social justice, and equality. You won't find Charles Lindbergh, Walt Disney, and Ronald Reagan in this book.

Dreier is clearly trying not only to educate readers but also provoke them to think differently about our history and to reconsider what we mean by "great." While you might not agree with Dreier's hundred, he provides an impressive case for the importance of leadership and social movements and how progressives and radicals inside and outside of the establishment made America a more livable and humane society.

Note to Those in the New York Area
Dreier will be giving two talks about his book in New York City next week. On Tuesday, October 16, he'll be speaking at the New School, in Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang Building, 65 West 11th Street, 5th floor, at 6 pm. On Thursday, October 18, hell be interviewed by Bill Moyers and the think tank Demos (220 Fifth Avenue, 2nd floor), starting at 6:30 pm. Both events are free and open to the public.

John Atlas is president of the Montclair, New Jersey based National Housing Institute. His new book Seeds of Change, The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group, is published by Vanderbilt Univ. Press