We All Need Heroes

The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century(Image: Nation Books)“The 100 Greatest Americans of the Twentieth Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame”
By Peter Dreier
Nation Books, 2012, 495 pages

“The 100 Greatest Americans of the Twentieth Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame” is a progressive pick of the week. You can receive a copy directly from Truthout right now with your donation.

This summer, Truthout’s Leslie Thatcher conducted an email interview with activist and academic Peter Dreier, author of “The 100 Greatest Americans of the Twentieth Century.”

Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: Peter Dreier, tell us a bit about the genesis of this huge project: What inspired you? What are your goals? How did it come about?

Peter Dreier: I’ve been teaching, organizing, and writing for a long time, and I’m always frustrated that most Americans, even activists, know so little about the movements and people that have made America a better country. Yes, we still have plenty of problems and progressives have much more work to do, but we also need to celebrate the progressive pioneers who fought (and won) many victories that have made America a more democratic, inclusive country. 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, dismantling of Jim Crow laws, 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 all stand on the shoulders of earlier generations of reformers, radicals, and idealists who challenged the status quo of their day. They helped change America by organizing movements, pushing for radical reforms, popularizing progressive ideas, and spurring others to action. Unless we know this history, we will have little understanding of how far we have come, how we got here, and what still needs to change to make America (and the rest of the world) more livable, humane, and democratic. Young people, in particular, need to understand that bringing about progressive change takes time, but it IS possible, so don’t get too impatient, and don’t give up hope.

LT: What was the most difficult aspect of the project?

PD: Without doubt the most difficult aspect was narrowing the list down to 100 people. I contacted lots of historians, biographers, journalists, political scientists, and activists to ask for their “nominations.” I had over 200 names at first. I loved doing the research and learning about these fascinating people, but getting it down to 100 people was hard. I cheated a bit by listing the “next 50” people in the book’s Introduction – 50 people I would have included if I had more pages!

LT: Activists, authors, organizers, artists, even pop stars figure in this wonderful social justice hall of fame. What were the criteria for inclusion? How did you balance them?

PD: Some of the people in my book are already well-known, but many are not well-known and should be. And some – like Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, and Dr. Seuss – are famous, but most people don’t know that they were also committed radicals.

I included three kinds of people in the book. The first are the organizers and activists – people who mobilized people on the ground by building organizations and movements. These include people like Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, Bill Haywood, Rose Schneiderman, Frances Perkins, A.J. Muste, Alice Paul, A. Philip Randolph, Dorothy Day, Myles Horton, Harry Hay, Roger Baldwin, Emma Goldman, Walter Reuther, Sidney Hillman, Bayard Rustin, Cesar Chavez, Ella Baker, Betty Friedan, Martin Luther King, Ralph Nader, Tom Hayden, John Lewis, and Bob Moses.

The second are people who inspired Americans to think differently about the world and about themselves, to believe that things can be different, to give people hope. That group includes singers like Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, artists like Lewis Hine and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), thinkers, writers, journalists and filmmakers like Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Dewey, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Langston Hughes, William Sloane Coffin, Gloria Steinem, Michael Moore, and Barbara Ehrenreich, playwrights like Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner, athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Billie Jean King, and scientists like Albert Einstein, Rachel Carson, and Barry Commoner.

The third group includes politicians and Supreme Court judges who translated these radical and progressive ideas into public policy, sometimes reluctantly but ultimately as allies of movements. These include Hiram Johnson, Robert La Follette, Victor Berger, Theodore Roosevelt, Floyd Olsen, FDR, Robert Wagner, Fiorello La Guardia, Henry Wallace, Vito Marcantonio, Bella Abzug, Harvey Milk, Paul Wellstone, Louis Brandeis, William Douglas, Earl Warren, William Brennan, and Thurgood Marshall.

Some people, of course, played more than one of these roles. And this isn’t the entire list. There are more people profiled in the book, but I don’t want to give away the names of all 100 of them!

LT: Were there any surprises – good or bad – as you dug into the biographies of the people you chose?

PD: In the book’s Introduction, I say that these 100 people were “heroes but not saints.” All of them had flaws – some personal, some political. It is important not to put these people on too high a pedestal, to see them as human beings who were products of their times, who had choices to make and sometimes made what today we’d consider the wrong choices. Alice Paul, the great women’s suffrage leader, was an anti-Semite. Eleanor Roosevelt grew up in an upper-class world that was racist and anti-semitic, but she eventually overcame these prejudices and was a truly remarkable progressive force for much of the 20th century. Margaret Sanger, the founder of modern birth control, embraced the eugenics movement. Victor Berger, the great Socialist leader, was something of a racist. As California’s Attorney General, Earl Warren supported the internment of Japanese-Americans, a gross violation of civil liberties. William O. Douglas was a womanizer and real nasty person – someone I wouldn’t want to take a vacation with, for sure. Martin Luther King plagiarized part of his PhD dissertation. In 2000, Ralph Nader’s ego got in his way and helped George W. Bush win Florida, and the White House. Paul Wellstone, one of my heroes, supported the Defense of Marriage Act against same-sex marriage. And of course there are many things that Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson did that I and other progressives consider objectionable. But these people also had great accomplishments that deserve recognition.

I was also fascinated to see how many of the people I profile in the book knew and worked with each other, in different organizations and movements. The founders of the NAACP in 1909 included a “who’s who” of the Progressive movement. Ditto with groups like the National Consumers League, the Women’s Trade Union League, the Socialist Party, the settlement houses, and the Highlander Center. There was a lot of overlap and cross-fertilization. Most activists weren’t defined into narrow single-issue movements. Also in the 1960s and 1970s, there was some sense of being part of “the movement,” regardless of what issue you were working on, it was much bigger than that issue. I think today’s activists are trying to rebuild that sense of linking different issues and organizations – unions and environmentalists, for example. I think Occupy Wall Street has helped “reframe” the debate to see everything from people fighting foreclosures, to unions fighting for workers’ rights, to environmentalists struggling for public health as part of a broader struggle. And Walmart has single-handedly brought together lots of activists from different movements – unions, community organizers, feminists, environmentalists, human rights activists, even small business – into a coalition to challenge the Walmart-ization of our country.

LT: I love that the book includes a social justice timeline for the Twentieth Century. The individual portraits are ordered by date of birth. Did you consider other ordering principles?

PD: The timeline helps readers see the broad sweep of what was happening at each period of the 20th century and how key milestones in different movements overlapped. For example, a number of important books and documents – The Feminine Mystique, The Other America, Unsafe at Any Speed, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and the Port Huron Statement – were all written within a few years of each other. Plus, putting the 100 profiles in chronological order gives readers an understanding of how the progressive movement evolved and how some of the key people were involved over a long period of time.

LT: Is there anything else about the book or its genesis you’d like Truthout’s readers to know?

PD: The book is called The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, but 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 the final chapter, “The 21st Century So Far …” that describes some of the important movements and milestones of the past dozen years and introduces a few young activists who are strong candidates to make the Social Justice Hall of Fame for the 21st century.

What else should Truthout readers know about the book? It makes a great graduation, birthday, Bat/Bar Mitzvah, and early Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanza gift!