The radical ideas of one generation become the common sense of the next. Peter Dreier’s list of the fifty most influential progressives of the twentieth century honored the people who moved progressive ideas in America from the marginal to the mainstream. But his list could only include a handful of all those who have contributed to this tradition. We asked our readers to nominate the American progressives who have made the biggest difference in the twentieth century—and the activists, advocates and politicians who are already defining the twenty-first. Below, read the stories of eleven more progressives you told us are deserving of our recognition.
Howard Zinn (1922–2010), an activist and scholar, changed the way Americans view their history. In A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980 and updated several times, Zinn looked at history from the "bottom up," from the perspective of ordinary people. A People’s History, which has sold nearly 2 million copies, drew on and inspired the burgeoning field of social history that focused on the everyday lives of ordinary people—farmers, workers, women, African-Americans and others—and the movements they organized to improve living and working conditions.
Zinn worked in a shipyard and enlisted in the Air Corps in World War II, and became a B-17 bombardier, an experience that influenced his opposition to war. After the war, he began college at age 27 under the GI Bill and earned his PhD in history from Columbia University. His first book, LaGuardia in Congress (1959), about the progressive New York politician, won the American Historical Association’s prestigious Albert J. Beveridge Prize. In 1956 Zinn began teaching at Spelman College, a black women’s college, where he taught students who became prominent activists and leaders, including Marian Wright (Edelman), founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; novelist Alice Walker; and Bernice Johnson (Reagon), singer, composer and a member of the Freedom Singers and Sweet Honey and the Rock.
Zinn participated in civil rights protests, became an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and wrote about the burgeoning movement in articles and in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Fired from Spelman in 1963 for his activism, he moved to Boston University, where he continued his activism, including his involvement in the antiwar movement, which led to Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967) and Disobedience and Democracy (1968). He wrote six other books, including his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994), and several plays, but he is best known for A People’s History, which is widely used in high schools and colleges, became the basis for a 2009 TV show The People Speak on the History Channel and inspired Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska.
For more information
Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994 autobiography)
Davis D. Joyce, Howard Zinn: A Radical American Vision ( 2003)
Documentary film: Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (2004)
Noam Chomsky (1928–) first made his mark as a brilliant linguist, but since the 1960s has been better known as a left-wing critic of the political and economic establishment, particularly on issues of war and human rights. In the 1950s, Chomsky’s theory of "transformational grammar" revolutionized the field of linguistics, philosophy and cognitive psychology by challenging existing ideas about how humans learn and develop language skills.