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


The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century

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25. Ella Baker (1903–86). After graduating from North Carolina's Shaw University in 1927 as valedictorian, Baker began a lifelong career as a social activist. She served as a mentor to several generations of civil rights activists without drawing much attention to herself. In 1940 she became an organizer for the NAACP, traveling to many small towns and big cities across the South and developing a network of activists. In 1957 Baker moved to Atlanta to help Martin Luther King Jr. organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), running a voter registration campaign. After black college students organized a sit-in at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, Baker left the SCLC to help the students spread the sit-in movement. That April she helped them create the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at a conference at her alma mater.


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

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26. I.F. Stone (1907–89) was an investigative journalist whose persistent research uncovered government corruption and wrongdoing. After a career as a reporter for several daily newspapers (including PM, a left-wing newspaper in New York City), he was Washington editor of The Nation from 1940 to 1946. In 1953, at the height of McCarthyism, he started I.F. Stone's Weekly, keeping the newsletter going until 1971. He was under constant attack during the cold war for his opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy and for his reporting about the excesses of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Stone was one of a handful of journalists who challenged LBJ's claim that the North Vietnamese had attacked a US destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf, which had given the president an excuse to go to war in Vietnam. He wrote fifteen books, including, at age 81, The Trial of Socrates (1988). He inspired generations of muckraking reporters.

27. Jackie Robinson (1919–72). A four-sport athletic star in high school in Pasadena and then at the University of California, Los Angeles, Robinson played in the Negro Leagues before becoming the first African-American to play in the major leagues, in 1947. He endured physical and verbal abuse on and off the field, showing remarkable courage, while helping pave the way for the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. said to Don Newcombe, Robinson's teammate, "You, Jackie and Roy [Campanella] will never know how easy you made it for me to do my job." During World War II Robinson faced a court-martial for refusing to move on a segregated bus outside a military base in Texas. As Rookie of the Year in 1947, Most Valuable Player in 1949 and a six-time All-Star, he led the Brooklyn Dodgers to several pennants. During and after his playing days, he joined picket lines and marches, wrote a newspaper column that attacked racism and raised funds for the NAACP. In testimony before Congress while still a player, he condemned America's racism but also criticized Paul Robeson's radicalism, a remark he later said he regretted.

28. Rachel Carson (1907–64) was a marine biologist and nature writer who helped inspire the modern environmental movement, especially with her 1962 book, Silent Spring. The book exposed the dangers of synthetic pesticides and led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides. The movement led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and many environmental laws. She laid the groundwork for the growing consciousness of humankind's stewardship of the planet and a new radical thinking about the environment, most prominently by Barry Commoner, another biologist, whose first books focused on the dangers of nuclear testing and whose The Closing Circle (1971) examined the link between capitalism's thirst for growth and environmental dangers.

29. Thurgood Marshall (1908–93) was a leading civil rights lawyer and the first black Supreme Court justice, appointed by LBJ in 1967. As NAACP chief counsel, he led the battle in the courts for civil rights despite repressive conditions and a limited budget. He won his first Supreme Court case, Chambers v. Florida, in 1940 at age 32 and won twenty-nine out of the thirty-two cases he argued before the Court. Many of them were landmark decisions that helped dismantle segregation, including Smith v. Allwright (1944), Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950). His most famous legal victory was Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which the Court ruled that the "separate but equal" doctrine, established by Plessy v. Ferguson, violated the Constitution. On the Supreme Court he was an outspoken advocate for free speech and civil rights.

30. Harry Hay (1912–2002) co-founded America's first major gay rights organization in 1950. Educated at Stanford, Hay became a Communist Party member in Los Angeles in the 1930s and '40s but left in 1951 because it did not welcome his homosexuality. In December 1950 he organized the first semipublic homosexual discussion group, which soon became the Mattachine Society, known then as a "homophile" group. In 1952 the group led the defense of Dale Jennings, a gay man arrested in an entrapment case. The following year he helped start ONE, a magazine addressing homosexual rights. Hay later was often at odds with younger gay activists who wanted to join the political and cultural mainstream.

31. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68) helped change America's conscience, not only about civil rights but also about economic justice, poverty and war. As an inexperienced young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, King was reluctantly thrust into the leadership of the bus boycott. During the 382-day boycott, King was arrested and abused and his home was bombed, but he emerged as a national figure and honed his leadership skills. In 1957 he helped launch the SCLC to spread the civil rights crusade to other cities. He helped lead local campaigns in Selma, Birmingham and other cities, and sought to keep the fractious civil rights movement together, including the NAACP, Urban League, SNCC, CORE and SCLC. Between 1957 and 1968 King traveled more than 6 million miles, spoke more than 2,500 times and was arrested at least twenty times while preaching the gospel of nonviolence. Today we view King as something of a saint; his birthday is a national holiday and his name adorns schools and street signs. But in his day the establishment considered King a dangerous troublemaker. He was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media. The struggle for civil rights radicalized him into a fighter for economic and social justice. During the 1960s King became increasingly committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. He was in Memphis in 1968 to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated. In 1964, at 35, King was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Some civil rights activists worried that his opposition to the Vietnam War, announced in 1967, would create a backlash against civil rights; but instead it helped turn the tide of public opinion against the war.

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