The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century | The Nation


The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

19. A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) founded the first African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in the 1920s. A leading socialist writer, orator and civil rights pioneer, he built bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. He edited the socialist newspaper The Messenger. In an early editorial, Randolph wrote: "The history of the labor movement in America proves that the employing classes recognize no race lines. They will exploit a White man as readily as a Black man.... They will exploit any race or class in order to make profits. The combination of Black and White workers will be a powerful lesson to the capitalists of the solidarity of labor." Randolph helped bring African-Americans into the labor movement while also criticizing union leaders for excluding blacks. In 1941, as the country was gearing up for war, Randolph threatened to organize a march on Washington to protest blacks' exclusion from well-paid defense industry jobs. The strategy worked. In June 1941 FDR signed an executive order that called for an end to discrimination in defense plant jobs, America's first "fair employment practices" reform. Randolph led the 1963 March on Washington, in which more than 250,000 Americans joined together under the slogan "Jobs and Freedom."


About the Author

Peter Dreier
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His...

Also by the Author

Guy Carawan's music had a message and his songs became the unofficial anthems of the Civil Rights movement. 

Violence-prevention groups are urging the comedian to cancel an appearance at an upcoming industry trade show.

20. Walter Reuther (1907–70) rose from the factory floor to help build the United Auto Workers into a major force in the auto industry, the labor movement and the left wing of the Democratic Party. He helped shape the modern labor movement, which created the first mass middle class. He led the 1937 sit-down at the General Motors factory in Flint, Michigan, a major turning point in labor history. After World War II he pushed for a large-scale conversion of the nation's industrial might to promote peace and full employment. In 1946 he led a 116-day strike against GM, calling for a 30 percent wage increase without an increase in the retail price of cars and challenged GM to "open its books." In 1948 GM agreed to a historic contract tying wage raises to the general cost-of-living and productivity increases. During his term as UAW president, from 1946 until his death in 1970, the union grew to more than 1.5 million members and negotiated model grievance procedures, safety and health provisions, pensions, health benefits and "supplemental unemployment benefits" that lifted union members into the middle class and helped cushion the hardships of economic booms and busts. In the 1960s he led the labor movement's support for civil rights, was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and an ally of Cesar Chavez's effort to organize migrant farmworkers. Reuther became president of the CIO in 1952 and helped negotiate the 1955 merger of the AFL and CIO.

21. Paul Robeson (1898–1976) was perhaps the most all-around talented American of the twentieth century. He was an internationally renowned concert singer, actor, college football star and professional athlete, writer, linguist (he sang in twenty-five languages), scholar, orator, lawyer and activist in the civil rights, union and peace movements. Though he was one of the century's most famous figures, his name was virtually erased from memory by government persecution during the McCarthy era. The son of a runaway slave, Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated as valedictorian. Despite violence and racism from teammates, he won fifteen varsity letters in sports (baseball, football, basketball and track) and was twice named to the All-American Football Team. He attended Columbia Law School, then took a job with a law firm but quit when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He never practiced law again. In London, Robeson earned international acclaim for his lead role in Othello (1944). He starred in many plays and musicals and made eleven films, many with political themes. He promoted African independence, labor unions, friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union, African-American culture, civil liberties and Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's Germany. In 1945 he headed an organization that challenged Truman to support an antilynching law. Because of his political views, his performances were constantly harassed. In the late 1940s he was blacklisted. Most of his concerts were canceled, and his passport was revoked in 1950.

22. Saul Alinsky (1909–72) is known as the founder of modern community organizing. He taught Americans, especially the urban poor and working class, how to organize to improve conditions in their communities. Trained as a criminologist at the University of Chicago, he realized that criminal behavior was a symptom of poverty and powerlessness. In 1939, to improve living conditions in a Chicago slum near the stockyards, he created the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, an "organization of organizations" comprising unions, youth groups, small businesses, block clubs and the Catholic Church. It engaged in pickets, strikes and boycotts to improve neighborhood conditions. His Industrial Areas Foundation trained organizers (including Cesar Chavez) and built grassroots groups in different cities, challenging local political bosses and corporations. He codified his organizing ideas in two books—Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971)—which influenced several generations of progressive movements and activists.

23. Woody Guthrie (1912–67), the legendary songwriter and folk singer, is best known for "This Land Is Your Land," considered America's alternative national anthem. He traveled from his native Oklahoma across the nation, writing songs about migrant workers, union struggles, government public works projects and the country's natural beauty, including "I Ain't Got No Home," "Tom Joad," "So Long It's Been Good to Know Yuh," "Roll on Columbia," "Pastures of Plenty," "Grand Coulee Dam" and "Deportee." As a member of the Almanac Singers, Guthrie wrote and performed protest songs on behalf of unions and radical organizations. Many of his songs are still recorded by other artists and have influenced generations of performers, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen.

24. Earl Warren (1891–1974), chief justice from 1953 to 1969, took the Supreme Court in an unprecedented liberal direction. With the help of progressive justices William O. Douglass and William J. Brennan, the Warren Court dramatically expanded civil rights and civil liberties. The Republican Warren used his considerable political skills to guarantee that the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was unanimous. In another landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Warren Court ruled that courts are required to provide attorneys for defendants in criminal cases who cannot afford their own lawyers. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the Court significantly expanded free speech by requiring proof of "actual malice" in libel suits against public figures. The 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision established the right to privacy and laid the groundwork for Roe v. Wade (1973). In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Court ruled that detained criminal suspects, prior to police questioning, must be informed of their constitutional right to an attorney and against self-incrimination. After serving as Alameda County district attorney, Warren was elected California's attorney general in 1938 and four years later was elected governor, serving until 1953. In that post he approved the rounding up of Japanese-Americans into detention camps. In 1948 he was the Republican Party's unsuccessful vice presidential candidate on a ticket with Thomas Dewey. When Eisenhower nominated Warren to the Supreme Court, he thought he was appointing a conservative jurist and later reportedly said that it was the "biggest damn fool mistake" he'd ever made.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.