When I told someone about Peter Dreier’s new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame
, they asked why people wanting short summaries of these famous figures could not simply go to Wikipedia. A valid point – if one is merely seeking quick information about basic facts. But Wikipedia does not come close to matching the much deeper and nuanced biographical insights that Dreier provides in this book. A longtime progressive scholar and activist, Dreier captures the essence of what made these social justice heroes so valuable. He often does this by offering lesser-known facts – from playwright Arthur Miller’s refusal to attend a 1965 White House event with Lyndon Johnson in protest of the Vietnam War, to Lewis Hine ending up in poverty despite revolutionizing social justice photography, to Eleanor Roosevelt’s under-reported actions for racial justice – that greatly add to our appreciation of their legacies. And given the current climate of rising inequality and economic unfairness, Dreier’s inspiring histories of these courageous and idealistic visionaries could not have come at a better time.
Choosing the 100 greatest Americans for a fictional “Social Justice Hall of Fame” is no easy task. Few have the breadth of knowledge to include such less remembered heroes as former Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson, women’s rights pioneer Alice Stokes Paul, civil and human rights activist Bayard Rusting and many others. It also takes strong writing skills to capture the essence of these historic figures in an average of only five pages.
Peter Dreier is steeped in the culture and history of the American left, and of the social movements that have propelled progressive change. He is also an activist who understands that non-left figures like FDR and Lyndon Johnson created space for progressive goals to be achieved. A frequent contributor to The Nation, Huffington Post and other online sites, Dreier knows how to engage readers without the digressions permissible in long biographies.
Some will debate Dreier’s Hall of Fame choices. I could quibble with some, and believe he included a disproportionate number of writers. But all 100 made important contributions to social justice in the United States. And Dreier includes enough kernels of wisdom and insights in each piece to leave readers marveling at the legacy the 100 have left.
The group of 100 includes the familiar names – Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., Helen Keller, Harvey Milk, Bob Dylan to name but a few – as well as those that may be new to many readers. Dreier has reclaimed the vital legacies of many social justice advocates excluded from most history books and little remembered today.
People like former Milwaukee Mayor Victor Berger (1860-1929). Berger’s Socialist Party ran the city, and was so focused on creating public services that they were called “sewer Socialists” (the Party built new sanitation and municipal water systems). Or public health pioneer Alice Hamilton (1869-1970), who led state campaigns to pass workers compensation laws and who laid groundwork for the passage in 1970 of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).
Florence Kelly (1859-1932) led the effort to pass the first state law limiting work for women in factories to an eight hour day, and helped convince Louis Brandeis to take on what became the landmark Muller v Oregon
Supreme Court ruling upholding Oregon’s law limiting women work hours. As with Hamilton and so many others in the book, Kelly combined activism in her field with a broad social justice agenda, opposing America’s imperialist wars in the early 1900’s and promoting women’s suffrage. One gets a good sense of how Dreier brings the 100 to life by citing a comment made by a friend of Kelly at her funeral – “everyone was brave from the moment she came into the room.”
Dreier’s profiles show that winning progressive change and social justice has always been hard. Many of his 100 struggled for decades before achieving their goals, and some died before seeing the fruits of their labor.
The United States has a culture of looking forward. We are a nation of immigrants who shed their past for a rosier future. But reading this book reminds us that it is vital for our social and economic justice heroes to be remembered. John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, and the many others who sacrificed money, personal relationships or put their lives on the line for social justice are role models. We need to know their stories. And we need to know the truth about their activism, rather than relying on short online summaries or depictions in fictionalized accounts.
I recently attended a play based on historic events in which a lawyer who risked his life spending years on a struggle for legal justice was portrayed as an arrogant buffoon. After expressing concern to the playwright about the depiction, he responded in a way that indicated he did not fully grasp the broader political context nor this man’s role in the struggle. Peter Dreier, in contrast, understands social justice movements, and the role activists have played. And he does not shy from his subject’s negative attributes – he describes his 100 as “heroes, not saints,” recognizing that those like Lyndon Johnson had tremendous downsides to go along with their contributions to social justice.
Activists need inspiration in these difficult times, and Peter Dreier’s new book provides it. Even those familiar with most of these 100 social justice greats will find themselves smiling and nodding in agreement as they read.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.