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.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Chomsky, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became "one of the most articulate spokesmen of the resistance against the Vietnam war," according to Jan Deutsche in The New York Times Book Review. Chomsky’s 1967 essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," published in The New York Review of Books (expanded in American Power and the New Mandarins, 1969), challenged the complicity of academics, government bureaucrats, think tank experts and others in justifying America’s right to dominate the world, and established him as a leading critic of US foreign policy. He followed that book with an outpouring of books and articles criticizing American imperialism, especially its impact on people in Third World countries, and its support for dictatorships. He has also written extensively about the role of the media in rationalizing and excusing US global domination and corporate priorities, notably in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), co-authored with Edward Herman.
In his speeches, articles and books, Chomsky has examined the complicity of big business and the US government (including the military) in undermining human rights around the world. In his book 9-11 (2002), Chomsky denounced the attack on the World Trade Center, while tracing its origins to the actions of the United States, which he labeled "a leading terrorist state." Despite his prolific writings on politics, Chomsky’s controversial views have been virtually ignored by the mainstream media, which generally do not review his books or publish his essays. His critics, even among progressives, argue that despite his moral indignation against injustice, Chomsky’s analysis offers little hope for activists having any influence on policy, because he views the US government, regardless of who is elected to office, as a force for evil.
Robert La Follette Sr. (1855-1925). As a US congressman (1885–1890), governor of Wisconsin (1901-1906), US senator (1907-1925), candidate for President (1924) and editor of La Follette’s Weekly Magazine (founded in 1909 and later called The Progressive, still based in Wisconsin), "Fighting Bob" La Follette consistently and effectively challenged corporate power and militarism and inspired generations of reformers and radicals. When he took office as governor, he denounced the "corporation agents and representatives of the machine," who had "moved upon the capitol," including the railroad and timber powerbrokers who dominated his own Republican Party. As governor, he promoted "the Wisconsin idea," using the state as a laboratory for progressive reform that influenced progressive movements and farmer-labor alliances in other states as well as the New Deal three decades later. He created state commissions on the environment, taxation, railroad regulation, transportation and civil service, recruiting university experts (especially those at the University of Wisconsin) to provide ideas and information. To weaken the political influence of big business and party machines, he successfully pushed for direct primary elections and campaign spending limits.
In the Senate, he led the opposition to US entry into World War I. From the Senate floor, he warned: "The poor…who are always the ones called upon to rot in the trenches have no organized power.… But oh, Mr. President, at some time they will be heard.… There will come an awakening. They will have their day, and they will be heard." After the war, he continued his crusade to expose war profiteering by politically connected corporations and defended socialist Eugene Debs and others who had been jailed for opposing the war and during the postwar roundup of radicals.
Abandoning the Republican Party, La Follette ran for president in 1924 on the Progressive Party ticket. He called for government takeover of the railroads, the elimination of private utilities, the right of workers to organize unions, easier credit for farmers, outlawing of child labor, stronger protection for civil liberties, an end to US imperialism in Latin America, and a requirement for a plebiscite before any president could declare war. He promised to "break the combined power of the private monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people" and denounced "any discrimination between races, classes, and creeds." He won almost 5 million votes (about one-sixth of the popular vote), running first in Wisconsin, second in eleven Western states and winning working-class districts of major cities.
For more information
John Nichols, "About Robert ‘Fighting Bob’ La Follette"
Carl R. Burgchardt, Robert M. La Follette Sr.: The Voice of Conscience (1992).
Dorothy Day (1897–1980) founded the Catholic Worker movement, combining militant pacifism, radical economic redistribution and direct service to the poor, including the homeless. She influenced generations of activists through her newspaper, The Catholic Worker, and through Catholic Worker houses located in urban slums, which provided food and shelter to the destitute. Born to a middle-class Episcopalian family, Day spent part of her youth in a comfortable Chicago neighborhood. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle inspired her to take long walks in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods. She dropped out of the University of Illinois after two years and moved to New York City in 1916, where she got involved in bohemian and radical circles. She worked as a reporter for The Call, a socialist daily newspaper, covering protests and interviewing union organizers and other radicals. She later wrote for other socialist publications, including The Masses and The Liberator. She had two common-law marriages, and at least one abortion, which she described in her semi-autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin (1924).
In November 1917 Day was one of forty women arrested during a women’s suffrage protest in front of the White House. To protest their rough handling by prison guards, Day and other women launched a hunger strike and were eventually freed by presidential order. She was a religious agnostic, but occasionally attended services at Catholic Churches, which she viewed as the church of immigrants and the poor. The birth of her daughter Tamar in 1926 triggered a spiritual awakening that led her to officially join the Catholic Church the next year. She began to write for Catholic publications such as Commonweal and America, where she fused socialist ideas with Catholic social teaching. She and Peter Maurin, a French immigrant, founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, beginning with the newspaper; after a few weeks, 100,000 copies were being printed each month, reflecting Day’s radical ideas about poverty, unions, capitalism and the role of the church in society. As the newspaper attracted a growing following, Day and Maurin sought to put their principles into practice. They soon rented an apartment with space for ten women, and then a place for men. In 1936 they moved into two buildings in Chinatown. They staff embraced a life of poverty along with the poor people who lived in their "hospitality houses" with no conditions. That year, in the midst of the Depression, the movement had grown to thirty-three Catholic Worker houses across the country. About 180 Catholic Worker houses exist today in many cities in the United States and other countries. Beginning in the 1930s the Catholic Worker also experimented with several farming communes.
Day opposed US involvement in World War II and every subsequent war, including Vietnam, testing of nuclear weapons, and civil defense air-raid drills as preparations for war. She and her Catholic Worker and pacifist colleagues were often arrested for civil disobedience protest. At 75, she was jailed for participating in an illegal picket line in support of farmworkers. Day’s support for free love and birth control in her youth led her to question the sexual revolution of the 1960s. She combined a radical view of economics with a traditional Catholic view of sexual morality and an embrace of living simply. Despite her devotion to Catholic teachings, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church marginalized her for her radicalism, but toward the end of her life she was honored by many organizations, including the University of Notre Dame. She had a major influence on generations of activists, including Michael Harrington, Cesar Chavez, Daniel Berrigan and Philip Berrigan. Although she was known to say "Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily," many Catholics have tried to get Day canonized by the Catholic Church for her lifetime of social and spiritual activism.
For more information
Robert Coles, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987)
Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. (Chicago: Saint Thomas More Press, 1993)
Jim Forest, Love is the Measure: a biography of Dorothy Day (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994)
Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America (1982).
Films: Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story (1996, starring Moria Kelly and Martin Sheen), and Dorothy Day: Don’t Call Me a Saint (a 2005 documentary)
John Muir (1838–1914) was the "patron saint" of the environmental movement, the founder of the Sierra Club and a major force in the creation of America’s National Parks system. Born in Scotland, as a youth he climbed hills and rocks in the rough Scottish countryside. His family sailed to the United States in 1849. He taught himself about science and, despite infrequent schooling, was admitted to the University of Wisconsin, but he soon quit to pursue jobs that relied on his unusual mechanical skills, such as making working clocks out of carved wooden pieces and inventing useful gadgets. An accident while working in an Indiana factory almost blinded him. With his sight mostly restored, he began to travel around the United States, often exploring the wilderness on long and arduous hikes. He arrived in San Francisco in 1868, and began exploring California’s Yosemite Valley, which became his spiritual and actual home. He took frequent trips to Alaska and other wilderness areas, including his beloved Sierra Nevada mountains in California, which he described in over 300 articles and twelve books.
At the time, many Americans believed that consumption of natural resources had no limit. In contrast, Muir viewed nature in spiritual and religious terms and wrote movingly about the importance of preserving the wilderness, inspiring many readers, including presidents and members of Congress. Yellowstone had already been named the first National Park in 1872, and in the 1880s Muir and others began to campaign for Yosemite and Sequoia to be the next, an effort that bore fruit in 1890. In 1892, he and a colleague, Robert Underwood Johnson, founded the Sierra Club to advocate for Yosemite’s protection and to "do something for wildness and make the mountains glad." Muir served as the organization’s first president. The 211-mile John Muir Trail, and many other places, are named in his honor. His writings and activism left a profound legacy, including the expansion of the National Park system, a growing awareness of humans’ stewardship of natural resources and the influential Sierra Club, which now has more than a million members.
For more information
Donald Worster, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)
Amy Goodman (1957–) is a progressive journalist, best known as host of the daily show Democracy Now!: The War and Peace Report, broadcast on over 800 radio and television stations as well as the Internet. Goodman began the show in 1996 and served as news director of WBAI, the Pacifica Radio station in New York City, for over a decade. After graduating from Harvard in 1984, Goodman pursued a career as an investigative reporter for both print and broadcast outlets. In 1991, while reporting on the East Timor independence movement, Goodman and colleague Allan Nairn witnessed Indonesian soldiers gunning down 270 East Timorese protesters. They were themselves badly beaten by Indonesian soldiers. Their documentary, Massacre: The Story of East Timor, won numerous awards. In 1998, Amy Goodman and journalist Jeremy Scahill went to Nigeria to investigate the activities of US oil companies. Their radio documentary, Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship, exposed Chevron Corporation’s role in the killing of two Nigerian villagers who were protesting another oil spill in their community. The documentary won the 1998 George Polk Award.
Democracy Now! regularly reports on events, movements and people that are ignored or marginalized by the mainstream media. The show typically looks at the news from the perspective of victims of injustice and activists for change. Goodman has also written several books, including three with her brother David Goodman—The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them (2004), Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back (2006) and Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times (2008)—and, on her own, Breaking the Sound Barrier (2009). She also writes a weekly column (also produced as an audio podcast), syndicated by King Features. Goodman has won many awards for her journalism.
Emma Goldman (1869—1940). Goldman was one of the most prominent radicals in twentieth-century America, an eloquent and inspiring speaker and writer who advocated anarchism, free speech, women’s suffrage, birth control, free universal education without regard to race, gender or class and workers’ rights. She preached a brand of uncompromising revolutionism and absolute personal freedom that won many converts but alienated many more radicals and reformers, not to mention provoked the opposition of the political establishment, which frequently sought to silence, jail and deport her.
Born in Lithuania to a family of Russian-Jewish shopkeepers, Goldman moved with her family in 1881 to St. Petersburg, where she embraced the ideas of Russia’s revolutionary movement and lived in an atmosphere of fear; the czar’s secret police would crush any dissent. In 1885 she emigrated to Rochester, New York, where she worked in a clothing factory and had a brief, unhappy marriage to another worker. She moved to New York City in 1889 and quickly became part of that city’s bohemian and anarchist world. There she met her lifetime partner, Alexander Berkman, a fellow anarchist. In 1892, she was an accessory in Berkman’s failed attempt to assassinate steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick, in revenge for Frick’s brutal treatment of workers during the Homestead Steel strike. Berkman spent fourteen years in prison for this crime, while Goldman became a prominent public speaker, crisscrossing the country promoting revolutionary anarchist in speeches, pamphlets and books.
Goldman claimed that she opposed violence in theory, but she often defended it in practice by blaming government and business leaders for instigating violence against dissidents. "As an anarchist, I am opposed to violence," Goldman said. "But if the people want to do away with assassins, they must do away with the conditions which produce murderers." She was frequently arrested and jailed while lecturing on such topics as birth control and opposition to the draft, and sometimes her talks were banned outright. Goldman edited an anarchist literary and political magazine, Mother Earth, from 1906 to 1917. Starting in 1917, Goldman spent two years in prison in Missouri for her opposition to the draft during World War I. In December 1919, the US government stripped Goldman of her citizenship and deported her, Berkman and other radicals to Russia.
Goldman and Berkman quickly became disillusioned with the Russian Revolution, which they viewed as corrupt and authoritarian. After two years, they left Russia, moved to Europe and determined to expose the persecution, terrorism and harsh economic conditions they had witnessed. Goldman wrote a series of articles for the New York World that became part of her book My Disillusionment with Russia. She and Berkman eventually settled in France, where she wrote her autobiography, Living My Life (1931). She was denied entry into the United States for the rest of her life, except a brief visit in 1934, but upon her death in May 1940 she was allowed to be buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of the Haymarket martyrs.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882—1945). As president during the Great Depression, FDR instigated economic and social reforms that saved and humanized capitalism, despite the barbs of many critics, including most newspapers and business leaders, that his New Deal agenda was leading America to socialism. Taking office in March 1933, more than three years into the Depression, FDR inherited a nation that had lost faith in itself and in the social order. More than 13 million Americans were jobless and most banks were closed. Right-wing demagogues competed with a burgeoning radical movement of angry farmers, veterans, workers and others for the loyalty of the American people and politicians.
FDR had not run for president as a progressive, and even when he took office he had no bold plan to lift America out of the Depression, but he was willing to experiment, to listen to his close advisers (which included several progressives, including Frances Perkins, Henry Wallace, Harry Hopkins and Rexford Tugwell, as well as his wife, Eleanor), and to warn that without bold reforms, the country could be subject to even deeper chaos and potential revolution from the right or left. In his first 100 days, FDR proposed and Congress enacted a sweeping program to restore business and agriculture, provide relief to the unemployed and help families in danger of losing their farms and homes—all policies in line with the ideas of British economist John Maynard Keynes, who called for government jobs and deficit spending to jump-start economic recovery.
In addition, his first two terms in office saw the creation of Social Security and the recognition of workers’ rights to unionize, set a federal minimum wage, imposed heavier taxes on the wealthy and new regulations on banks and public utilities and established unemployment insurance, a huge work relief program for the unemployed and several government-sponsored enterprises (including the Tennessee Valley Authority) that brought electricity and jobs to rural areas. The New Deal helped lift America out of the worst economic disaster in the nation’s history, but the country didn’t reach full employment until World War II. By the early 1940s, FDR was focused on preparing the United States for a war against fascism. Although he supported neutrality legislation to keep the country out of the European war, he also worked to provide military and economic aid to strengthen nations threatened or attacked by the Nazis. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, FDR had led the nation to the brink of victory in the two-front war in Europe and Asia when he died in 1945. FDR’s initial election in 1932 (with 57.4 percent of the popular vote), subsequent landslide victory in 1936 (60.8 percent) and more narrow wins in 1940 (54.7 percent) and 1944 (53.4 percent), transformed the political landscape, forging a "New Deal coalition" of rural farmers, urban workers, Jews, African-Americans and others that would persist until the Nixon era starting in the late 1960s.
Nothing in FDR’s early career would have led anyone to predict that he would be able to lead America successfully during these momentous crises. Born to privilege, a distant cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, and a mediocre student at Harvard, he drew on his family connections to enter politics. He was elected to the New York Senate in 1910, appointed assistant secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1920 on a ticket that lost to Republican Warren Harding. In the summer of 1921, at age 39, he was stricken with poliomyelitis. With remarkable courage he fought to regain the use of his legs, particularly through swimming, an experience that shaped his sympathies for the disadvantaged. In 1928 he was elected governor of New York, where he carried out several innovative relief and recovery programs (including unemployment insurance, pensions for the elderly, limits on work hours and massive public works projects) that helped him win re-election in 1930 and led to his nomination as the Democratic candidate for president two years later.
For more information
Jonathan Alter, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2006)
James McGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1956)
David Kennedy, FDR: Freedom from Fear (1999)
Angela Davis (1944–) became a public figure almost by accident. In 1969, Davis was an acting assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA, a member of the Communist Party and an ally of the Black Panther Party. At the urging of California Gov. Ronald Reagan, the University of California’s Board of Regents fired her because of her membership in the Communist Party. The controversy catapulted Davis into the public eye. Her radical reputation grew as she became embroiled in other controversies and she became a well-known writer and activist on women’s rights, prison reform and other issues.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, to African-American parents who had graduated from college, Davis attended segregated public schools until her junior year in high school. When she applied to and was accepted by an American Friends Service Committee (Quaker) program that placed black Southern students in integrated Northern schools. Davis selected the Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a left-wing school, where she was exposed to radical ideas and was recruited by a Communist youth group. She earned a scholarship to Brandeis University, a campus with a progressive and radical tradition, where she was one of three black students in her freshman class. At a rally during the Cuban missile crisis, Davis met Brandeis faculty member Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist philosopher and German exile who had a major influence on her thinking. Marcuse, she later told a television interviewer, "taught me that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary." After graduating from Brandeis in 1965, she moved to Germany to attend the University of Frankfurt to study philosophy, where she met many radical students and became convinced that the Communist government of East Germany was addressing the economic after-effects of fascism and the postwar era better than its capitalist counterpart in West Germany. After two years in Germany, the civil rights movement drew Davis back to the United States. She enrolled in the graduate program at the University of California, San Diego, where Marcuse had moved to teach. She earned her master’s degree there and her doctorate from Humboldt University in East Berlin, and began teaching at UCLA, where her firing turned her into a public figure.
In 1970, Davis was charged with being an accomplice to a conspiracy, kidnapping and homicide. She had purchased firearms, including the shotgun used to kill Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, who along with several other hostages, was abducted from his Marin County, California, courtroom and murdered in an unsuccessful effort to free convict George Jackson. Davis fled California and became the third woman and the 309th person on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. She was captured in New York City two months later. In 1972 she was tried and the jury found her not guilty on the grounds that her purchase of the guns did not mean she was responsible for the murder. Her fame grew, helped by songs written about her by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. After her release, Davis moved to Cuba, which had welcomed other black radicals, including Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael. Rather than support Rev. Jesse Jackson, she ran for vice president on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984. She won the Lenin Peace Prize from East Germany for her activism.
Despite Ronald Reagan’s pledge that Davis would never teach again in the University of California system, she received tenure and taught philosophy and women’s studies for many years at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She became a popular writer and lecturer about feminism, gay and lesbian rights, African-American studies, and the prison-industrial complex. Her books include Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003), Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (1999) and Women, Race, and Class (1983).
Paul Wellstone (1944-2002). Elected to the US Senate from Minnesota in 1990 by beating a much better-financed and better-known Republican incumbent, Wellstone became the most progressive senator, serving as the voice for labor, antipoverty, family farmers and antiwar movements. He was on the verge of narrowly winning a third term when he; his wife, Sheila; his daughter, Marcia; and three campaign staffers were killed in a plane crash on October 25, 2002, a few weeks before the election.
Wellstone was raised in Arlington, Virginia, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, who instilled in him an idealistic belief in social justice. In high school he was a star wrestler and a top student, activities he continued in college at the University of North Carolina. He was undefeated for two years in a row, and won the Atlantic Coast Conference wrestling championship in his weight class. Already married to Sheila, he earned his undergraduate degree in three years and then earned a PhD in political science at UNC in 1969 at age 24, writing his dissertation on "Black Militants in the Ghetto: Why They Believe in Violence." That year he joined the faculty at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he remained until his election to the Senate in 1990. He taught courses that focused on questions of economic justice and poverty, and got his students (and himself) involved in local community-organizing efforts in the rural areas near the campus. His unorthodox academic style alienated the college administrators, who denied him tenure, but student activists forced them to reverse their decision. His students not only got involved in off-campus organizing campaigns but many of them pursued careers in political and community activism, including several who later became Wellstone’s top campaign and Senate aides.
A powerful speaker and consummate organizer, Wellstone led campaigns to support local farmers, workers and environmentalists, reflected in the titles of his books, How the Rural Poor Got Power: Narrative of a Grass-Roots Organizer (1978) and Powerline: The First Battle of America’s Energy War (1981). In 1982, Wellstone ran for Minnesota state auditor. He lost the race to the incumbent by nine percentage points, but gained a statewide reputation and media attention for his powerful speeches and charisma. He stayed involved in Minnesota’s Democratic Party (actually the Democratic Farm Labor Party, a legacy of its populist roots) and in 1990 decided to run for the US Senate against incumbent Republican Rudy Boschwitz. With a small budget, a mostly volunteer staff, and little name recognition, Wellstone ran a grassroots campaign that depended on reaching voters directly and gaining free media attention. He campaigned in an old green school, caught voters’ attention with funny low-budget TV ads, and focused on economic issues and the need for universal health care. Outspent seven to one, Wellstone won one of the most incredible political upsets in American history—and beat Boschwitz again in their 1996 rematch.
Wellstone’s first vote in the Senate was in opposition to the Persian Gulf War. As a Senator, Wellstone worked closely with grassroots and progressive organizations to represent their views. He developed a national reputation for advocacy on behalf of veterans and people with mental illness. He wrote and helped pass legislation on healthcare reform, environmental protection, jobs and economic security, and campaign finance and lobbying reform. In his autobiography, Conscience of a Liberal, Wellstone acknowledged that his biggest mistake was a 1996 vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which outlawed gay marriage. At a time when President Clinton and most Democrats favored legislation to limit welfare for low-income mothers and children, and Boschwitz called him "Senator Welfare," Wellstone cast a lonely vote against cutting benefits for the poor. On October 11, 2002, he voted against Congressional authorization for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. He was in the middle of a tight re-election campaign, and he is said to have told his wife, "I just cost myself the election." But the polls showed that he had a solid lead going into the final weeks of the campaign. He died two weeks later and his opponent, Republican Norman Coleman, won the Senate seat, but Wellstone’s close friend Al Franken defeated Coleman in 2008. Wellstone’s two sons and several former staffers created Wellstone Action to train progressives, including college students, in the skills of effective political activism.
For further information
Paul Wellstone, The Conscience of a Liberal.
Dennis J. McGrath and Dane Smith, Professor Wellstone Goes to Washington: The Inside Story of a Grassroots U.S. Senate Campaign (University of Minnesota Press)
Studs Terkel (1912–2008) was a remarkable radio personality and oral historian whose interviews on his Chicago radio show and in his many prize-winning books celebrated the achievements of both ordinary and famous people. Terkel grew up in Chicago and obtained a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1934. He found a job with the New Deal’s WPA Writers Project in the radio division. One day he was asked to read a script and was soon performing in radio soap operas, other stage performances and the news show. He quickly abandoned any thought of a legal career to become an actor, radio disk jockey and host of his own local TV show, Studs’ Place, an unscripted television drama about the owner of a greasy-spoon diner in Chicago, which gave Terkel an excuse to interview many famous people and unfamous but interesting characters. Blacklisted from television for his radicalism, Terkel returned to radio, hosting a popular interview show on WFMT for forty-five years, from 1952 until 1997. Terkel had the knack of getting his interviewees to feel comfortable and asking the right questions. As a result, his subjects—who included many political activists not often heard or seen on radio or TV—talked candidly about their lives, feelings and ideas.
His first book, Giants of Jazz, was published in 1956, but he became a famous and best-selling author after his next book, Division Street: America, came out in 1967. The book is a series of short edited conversations with diverse Chicagoans—cops, teachers, cab drivers, nuns, CEOs and others. Terkel let his subjects do the talking. This was followed a succession of oral history books, including Hard Times (1970), about the Depression; Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974); Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times (1977); American Dreams: Lost and Found (1983); The Good War, about World War II ( which won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize); The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream (1988); Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992); Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It (1995); My American Century (1997); Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith (2001); Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times (2003); And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey (2005); and Touch and Go (2007). His final book, P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, was released in November 2008, a few weeks after he died at the age of 96.
In addition to his radio show and books, Terkel was a frequent master of ceremonies and speaker at progressive political events and, late in life, resumed his acting career, appearing as a sportswriter in the film Eight Men Out, about the 1919 Chicago baseball scandal.