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


The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century

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32. Bayard Rustin (1912–87) was one of the nation's most talented organizers, typically working behind the scenes as an aide to Muste, Randolph and King, in large part because they feared that his homosexuality would stigmatize their causes and organizations. Randolph appointed him to lead the youth wing of the 1941 March on Washington movement. Rustin was upset when Randolph called off the march after FDR issued an executive order banning racial discrimination in the defense industries. Rustin then began a series of organizing jobs in the peace movement, honing his skills with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, the Socialist Party and the War Resisters League. In 1947 he began organizing a series of nonviolent acts of civil disobedience in the South and border states to provoke a challenge to Jim Crow practices in interstate transportation. Between 1947 and 1952 Rustin traveled to India and Africa to learn more about nonviolence and the Gandhian independence movement. Rustin spent time in Montgomery and Birmingham advising King about nonviolent tactics. Coming full circle, Randolph named him chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, diplomatically bringing together fractious civil rights leaders and organizations.


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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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33. C. Wright Mills (1916–62). In the 1950s, when most social scientists were celebrating America's postwar prosperity, Mills, a Columbia University sociologist, was warning about the dangers of the concentration of wealth and power in what he called, in his 1956 book of the same name, "the power elite." He also warned about the US attitude toward Cuba in Listen, Yankee. He was shunned by most fellow sociologists, but his ideas—outlined in books, scholarly journals and many magazine articles—became popular among 1960s activists. Mills's then-radical notion that big business, the military and government can be too closely connected is now conventional wisdom.

34. John Kenneth Galbraith (1908–2006) was the century's leading progressive American economist. His many books and articles helped popularize Keynesian ideas, especially The Affluent Society (1958), which coined the title phrase but also warned about the widening gap between private wealth and public squalor. In The New Industrial State (1967), the Harvard professor criticized the concentration of corporate power and recommended stronger government regulations. Active in politics, he served in the administrations of FDR, Truman, JFK and LBJ, including as Kennedy's ambassador to India.

35. David Brower (1912–2000) was a pioneer of the modern environmental movement. Brower began his career as a world-class mountaineer. He served as the Sierra Club's first executive director from 1952 to 1969, expanding the group's membership from 7,000 to 77,000 members. He led campaigns to establish ten new national parks and seashores and to stop dams in Dinosaur National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park. He was instrumental in gaining passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which protects millions of acres of public lands in pristine condition. He founded Friends of the Earth and then the League of Conservation Voters, mobilizing environmentalists for political action. In 1982 he founded Earth Island Institute to support environmental projects around the world.

36. Pete Seeger (1919–) wrote or popularized "We Shall Overcome," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "If I Had a Hammer," "Guantanamera," "Wimoweh," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and other songs that have inspired people to take action. On his own and as a member of the Almanac Singers and the Weavers (which had several top-selling hits, including "Good Night, Irene," despite their opposition to commercialism), Seeger sang for unions, civil rights and antiwar groups, and other human rights causes in the United States and around the world. He introduced Americans to the music of other cultures and catalyzed the "folk revival" of the late 1950s and '60s. He was a founder of the Newport Folk Festival and Sing Out! magazine. He was also an environmental pioneer, founding the sloop Clearwater and raising consciousness and money to push government to clean up the Hudson River and other waterways.

37. Malcolm X (1925–65). A onetime street hustler involved in drugs, prostitution and gambling, Malcolm Little converted to Islam while in prison and, upon his release, became a leading minister of the Nation of Islam, a forceful advocate for black pride and a harsh critic of white racism. As Malcolm X, he inspired the Black Power movement, which competed with the integrationist wing of the civil rights movement for the loyalty of African-Americans, and wrote (with Alex Haley) the bestselling The Autobiography of Malcolm X. His father—an outspoken Baptist preacher and avid supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey—faced death threats from the white supremacist organization Black Legion and was killed in 1931. As a popular minister for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X preached a form of black separatism and self-help. One of his recruits was boxer Muhammad Ali. In 1964, disillusioned by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad's behavior, Malcolm X left the organization. That year, he traveled to Mecca and, in his words, met "all races, all colors, blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans in true brotherhood!" When he returned to the United States he had a new view of racial integration. He was shot and killed on February 21, 1965, after giving a speech in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom. Many suspect that Elijah Muhammad had a hand in his murder.

38. Betty Friedan (1921–2006). Her book The Feminine Mystique (1963) helped change American attitudes toward women's equality, popularized the phrase "sexism" and catalyzed the modern feminist movement. In the 1940s and 1950s she worked as a left-wing labor journalist before focusing her writing and activism on women's rights. She co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966 and the National Women's Political Caucus (along with Gloria Steinem, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm) in 1971.

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