Peter Dreier is the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. The book profiles progressive leaders who “have fought to make the United States a more humane and inclusive country” and won — on issues from women’s suffrage and civil rights to the eight-hour work day and the federal minimum wage. (Full disclosure: Bill Moyers is one of the hundred.)
Lauren Feeney caught up with Dreier – a professor at Occidental College – and asked him how and why he compiled the list.
Peter Dreier: The book is about the people and the movements that have made America a better country. It includes profiles of organizers, activists, writers, thinkers, artists, musicians, judges, and politicians. I consulted with many historians, journalists, political scientists, biographers, and others to come up with the list, but the definition of “greatest” was mine. To me, the “greatest” Americans are those who played key roles in the struggles for a more just and decent society. So folks like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter won’t agree with my list. Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Walt Disney, and Ronald Reagan were “great” in their own ways, but they certainly didn’t challenge the rich and powerful to bring about more democracy and equality. In fact, each of them were on the other side of those battles.
I’ve included some well-known people like Martin Luther King; Rachel Carson, the woman who inspired the environmental movement with her book Silent Spring; Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis, William O. Douglas, William Brennan, and Earl Warren; union organizers Walter Reuther and Cesar Chavez, and three Roosevelts — Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor.
But then there are people that a lot of Americans don’t know anything about at all. Tom Johnson, the progressive mayor of Cleveland; Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, behind-the-scenes organizers in the Civil Rights movement; Alice Hamilton and Florence Kelley, two of the leading settlement worker activists in the early 1900s who led movements to improve workplaces and who fight against child labor; Myles Horton, who founded the Highlander School as a training center for labor and civil rights organizers; community organizer Saul Alinsky, who’s become famous in the last couple years because of attacks on Obama and his alleged ties to Alinsky.