100 greatest Americans of the 20th century
How many exceptionally great Americans could you name? Author Peter Drieier researched, selected and wrote who he and a host of others believed to be the 100 greatest Americans of the 20th century in the book, “Greatest Americans of the 20th Century,” published by Nation Books in 2012. He lists individuals who helped him make his selections. I felt reading the book that he was guided by a George Bernard Shaw quote that essentially said, “The reasonable person adapts to the world as is, therefore, progress depends upon those that bring about change.” Drieier provides research about each individual listed. An appropriate title for this book could have been, “Social Justice Hall of Fame.”
As a Wisconsinite, I had heard much about Robert M. Lafollette Sr. He was a true progressive and served Wisconsin as congressman, senator and governor. He ran for president the year I was born, 1924. He aggressively challenged militarism and corporate power.
They were not all men by any means. Helen Keller (1880-1068) was one of several women. She said at a Peace Rally sponsored by Women’s Party at Carnegie in 1916: “Congress is not preparing to defend the people of the United States. It is planning to protect the American speculators and investors. Incidentally this preparation will benefit the manufacturers of munitions and war machines. Strike against war for without you, no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing and gas bombs and all other tools of murder! Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves to an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.” (Times haven’t changed all that much have they?)
As a depression farm youngster in the 1930s, I came to know Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) our president. I listened to his fireside chats and noted work social programs implemented during those years. Crude by today’s machinery, was road infrastructure by horse power, easily observed during my quarter mile walk to our mailbox. Older neighbor boys were provided work in the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps. The WPA, Works Progress Administration, provided jobs such as building school libraries, hospitals, airports and roads. When FDR died I was in WW2 military service. A very, very sad day in 1945!
In this 100-page book, one great American listed is William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006). He was a Yale Divinity School graduate, involved in numerous Civil Rights activities. As a northern Christian, making the case for Negro civil rights, visiting the south in those early days was not a safe endeavor. As a minister of the Riverside Church in New York, the church was “Open and Affirming” to gay people. He was an opponent of the Vietnam War saying “Patriotism at the expense of another nation, is as wicked as racism at the expense of another race.”
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) spoke of problems faced when he spoke to his staff in 1968: “You can’t talk about the economic problems of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying that profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous grounds because you are messing with folks then. You are messing with captains of industry …Now this means that we are in difficult water, because it really means we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism … There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America should move toward a democratic socialism.”
I chose a poem to close with, in his 97th listing is Bruce Springsteen (1949-). Seems to me that it sums up all the strife and struggle by great Americans who helped those who were down and needed a helping hand or what we’ve come to call human rights. It was from a Woody Guthrie song:
Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Wherever there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s someone fightin’ for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever there’s somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.
Drieier selected great people who were willing to face serious problems that most people only quietly protest. Most people can’t move against the resisting winds even when they feel that change is needed, in spite of criticism and personal dangers. Lucky we are, to have those heroes of history that brought about such changes as eliminating slavery, greater income equality, voting rights for blacks and women and that list of achievements moves very slowly forward. We mouth platitudes about people’s rights and our obligation to speak truthfully in our democracy, but too few of us are willing to face the backlash.
This is only a minute taste of the 100 Greatest Americans selected by Drieier.