In 2010, Peter Dreier’s article, “The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the 20th Century,” appeared on the cover of The Nation. The piece drew an avalanche of praise and criticism for who made the list and who didn’t. The response spurred Dreier, a professor at Occidental College, to expand the list. The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, A Social Justice Hall of Fame, is a collection of tightly written biographies of those who, against long odds, fought to make the U.S. a more just, humane, and inclusive nation.
Readers won’t be surprised to see Jane Addams, FDR and Eleanor, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Caesar Chavez or Rachel Carson among the All Stars. But Dreier also recognizes some lesser-known change agents like Virginia F. Durr, a southern belle who in 1954 refused to testify before a Senate hearing on communists in the civil rights movement. She refused to answer questions while defiantly powdering her nose—(Hillary Clinton take note!), and went on to work with the NAACP; and Harry Hay, a labor advocate and teacher who in 1948 wrote a political manifesto on the then-radical idea of gay rights.
New Dealers are well represented in the book, including Francis Perkins, a social worker who witnessed the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire that killed 146 New York garment workers. She became the first woman to serve in a cabinet post when she was appointed FDR’s Labor Secretary, and was pivotal in improving working conditions, including minimum wage laws and Social Security.
Dreier’s list also holds some surprises: Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Angels in America,” which shown an unsparing light on the AIDS crisis; rock star Bruce Springsteen; and the Lorax-loving Dr. Seuss.
Dreier reminds us that social justice demands both endurance and resolve. Radical ideas in one generation become common sense in the next. Women’s suffrage, civil rights, workers’ health and safety, child labor laws, environmental protection, and food safety—seemingly impossible dreams at the beginning of the 20th century—are the convention today, however imperfect.
Reviewed by Sam Redman