3 Things About: “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century”

The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame by Peter Dreier. Nation Books (500 pp.)
  • This splendid book  so violates the American notion of what constitutes greatness that it will probably be reviewed in few publications.  So what?  Dreier, a politics professor at Occidental College, has produced a labor of love that will dazzle lefty readers and offer others insights into the lives of men and women who have dedicated themselves to fostering social change in the United States.  They range from the widely celebrated Jackie Robinson and Ted Kennedy to less seemly, in-your face figures like Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain and antiwar activist, and Rose Schneiderman, the young Jewish immigrant, sweatshop worker, and union organizer.  Shortly after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 women workers, Schneiderman told a Metropolitan Opera House gathering of wealthy New York reformers: “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship.  We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.”
  • In one way or another, all who appear in these pages spoke truth to power: Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, Big Bill Haywood, A.J. Muste, Myles Horton, Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Arthur Miller, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, Bob Moses.  “Most Americans know little about the fascinating activists, thinkers, and politicians and the exciting movements and struggles that are responsible for most of the best aspects of American society,” writes Dreier [emphasis added].  None of these 100 invented the assembly line or the iPhone; rather, each succeeded in making the nation more humane and inclusive. Many were outsiders: “Bayard Rustin was black, gay, a pacifist, and a radical, and thus had four strikes against him in terms of influencing mainstream America,” Dreier begins his portrait of the man behind the 1963 March on Washington.
  • He notes, “Vito Marcantonio lived his entire life within a densely populated four-block area of New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood.” This carpenter’s son nonetheless served  seven terms (1934-50) in Congress, representing Italian American and Puerto Rican constituents, and earning a national reputation as an orator and defender of the disadvantaged.  In his final term, he voted against both the Korean War and the House Un-American Activities Committee.  He stands here amid a pantheon of progressives from Henry Wallace to Bill Moyers, reminding us of the courage and accomplishments of radicals and idealists  who chose to fight for women’s suffrage, an end to lynching, a progressive income tax, a federal minimum wage, and many other causes that have shaped a more just society.

-Joseph Barbato edits Red Weather Review.



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