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


The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century

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39. Michael Harrington (1928–89). His book The Other America (1962) exposed Americans to the reality of poverty in their midst. In his 20s, Harrington joined Dorothy Day's Catholic Workers movement, lived among the poor at the Catholic Worker house and edited the Catholic Worker from 1951 to 1953. The Other America catapulted Harrington into the national spotlight. He became an adviser to LBJ's "War on Poverty" and a popular lecturer on college campuses, at union halls and academic conferences and before religious congregations. Inheriting Norman Thomas's mantle, he was America's leading socialist thinker, writer and speaker for four decades, providing ideas to King, Reuther, Robert and Ted Kennedy, and other leaders. Harrington wrote fifteen other books on social issues and helped build bridges between left intellectuals and academics and the civil rights and labor movements. He encouraged activists to promote "the left wing of the possible." He founded Democratic Socialists of America, which remains the nation's largest socialist organization.


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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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40. Cesar Chavez (1927–93). Building on his experiences as a farmworker and community organizer in the barrios of Oakland and Los Angeles, Chavez did what many thought impossible—organize the most vulnerable Americans, immigrant farmworkers, into a successful union, improving conditions for California's lettuce and grape pickers. Founded in the 1960s, the United Farm Workers pioneered the use of consumer boycotts, enlisting other unions, churches and students to join in a nationwide boycott of nonunion grapes, wine and lettuce. Chavez led demonstrations, voter registration drives, fasts, boycotts and other nonviolent protests to gain public support. The UFW won a campaign to enact California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 1975, giving farmworkers collective bargaining rights they lacked (and still lack) under federal labor law. The UFW inspired and trained several generations of organizers who remain active in today's progressive movement.

41. Harvey Milk (1930–78) was elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977, making him the first openly gay elected official in California and the most visible gay politician in the country. He moved to San Francisco in 1972 and set up a camera shop in the city's Castro district, quickly getting involved in local politics. Called "the mayor of Castro Street," Milk was a charismatic gay rights activist who built alliances with other constituencies, including neighborhood and tenants' groups. He became an ally of the labor movement by getting gay bars to remove Coors beer, which unions were boycotting for Coors's opposition to union organizing in its breweries and the Coors family's support for right-wing causes. As city supervisor, he orchestrated passage of a law that prohibited discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation. In 1978 he led the opposition to a statewide ballot measure (the Briggs initiative) to ban homosexuals from jobs as schoolteachers. On November 27, 1978, he was killed by Dan White, a disgruntled former city supervisor who disagreed with Milk and Mayor George Moscone, whom he also assassinated that day.

42. Ralph Nader (1934–). Since 1965, when he published his exposé of the auto industry, Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader has inspired, educated and mobilized millions of Americans to fight for a better environment, safer consumer products, safer workplaces and a more accountable government. Thanks to Nader, our cars are safer, our air and water are cleaner and our food is healthier. He raised awareness about the dangers of nuclear power and helped stop the construction of nuclear power plants. Nader played an important role in milestones such as the Freedom of Information Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Superfund program, the Environmental Protection Act, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Nader built a network of organizations to research and lobby against corporate abuse, training tens of thousands of college students and others in the skills of citizen activism. He has written many books, all focusing on how citizens can make America more democratic. During the 1970s and '80s Nader topped most polls as the nation's most trusted person. He ran for president four times, most controversially in 2000, when as a Green Party candidate he won votes in Florida that may have cost Democrat Al Gore the election.

43. Gloria Steinem (1934–) helped popularize feminist ideas as a writer and activist. Her 1969 article "After Black Power, Women's Liberation" helped establish her as a national spokeswoman for the women's liberation movement and for reproductive rights. In 1970 she led the Women's Strike for Equality march in New York along with Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug. In 1972 she founded Ms. magazine, which became the leading feminist publication. Her frequent articles and appearances on TV and at rallies made her feminism's most prominent public figure. She co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus, the Ms. Foundation for Women, Choice USA, the Women's Media Center and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. In 1984 she was arrested, along with Coretta Scott King, more than twenty members of Congress and other activists, for protesting apartheid in South Africa. She also joined protests opposing the Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq War in 2003.

44. Tom Hayden (1939–) was a founder of Students for a Democratic Society in 1960 and wrote its Port Huron Statement, a manifesto of the postwar baby boom generation. He worked as a community organizer in Newark and helped link student activists to the civil rights movement and later the antiwar movement. He made several high-profile trips to Cambodia and North Vietnam to challenge US military involvement in Southeast Asia. Hayden was the first leading 1960s radical activist to run for major political office, challenging Senator John Tunney of California in the Democratic primary of 1976. He was later elected to the California legislature, where he served for eighteen years as an environmental and consumer advocate, while continuing his antiwar activism, gang intervention work and writing for The Nation and other publications. He is the author of seventeen books.

45. The Rev. Jesse Jackson (1941–). As a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988, Jackson, a Baptist minister and aide to King, popularized the idea of a progressive, multiracial and socially diverse "rainbow coalition." After the 1965 march to Selma, Jackson moved to Chicago to head the city's SCLC office and to start Operation Breadbasket and later Operation PUSH, which pioneered the use of boycotts and other pressure tactics to get private corporations to hire African-Americans and do business with black-owned firms. In his second bid for the White House, Jackson won seven primaries and four caucuses. He also gained influence by arranging exchanges or releases of US political prisoners in Syria, Cuba and Belgrade.

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