A Gift of Hope: Peter Dreier’s Social Justice Hall of Fame

If you are looking for a great holiday gift, consider Peter Dreier’s timely new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. The book not only offers well-written profiles of the most influential activists of the last century, but also reminds us that the tradition of social justice activism remains alive and well, with stories of effective activism in the 21st Century.

Dreier’s book traces the key movements for equality and social justice—labor, civil rights, feminism, the environmental and consumer crusades, gay rights, peace, and housing and community development. A contributor to Shelterforce and a prolific writer on political issues for many other magazines and newspapers, Dreier celebrates these movements through their leaders—not only famous people like Jane Addams, Saul Alinsky, Jane Jacobs, Eugene Debs, Walter Reuther, and Martin Luther King but also lesser known (but no less important) leaders like Ella Baker (a behind-the-scenes Civil Rights movement organizer), Bayard Rustin (the gay African-American pacifist who organized the 1963 March on Washington), Florence Kelly (a settlement house worker who led movements in the early 1900s to end child labor and improve working conditions for women) and Myles Horton (who founded the Highlander School as a training center for labor and civil rights organizers).

In addition to profiles of great activists and organizers, Dreier includes politicians and Supreme Court justices who helped transform radical ideas into legislation and laws, as well as thinkers, artists, and writers, who helped inspire people to believe that a better world was (and is) possible.

Dreier includes Justices Louis Brandeis, William O. Douglas, and William Brennan; organizers Rose Schneiderman, Walter Reuther, and Cesar Chavez; performers and musicians Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen; writers, artists, and thinkers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, Bill Moyers, and Barbara Ehrenreich; and politicians like Floyd Olson, and Fiorello LaGuardia, Vito Marcantonio, and John Lewis.

Dreier presents them warts and all. Margaret Sanger, whose pamphlet Family Limitation made a cameo appearance of the TV hit, Boardwalk Empire was a daring fighter for women’s rights and the founder of what’s now called Planned Parenthood. But Dreier shows she also embraced eugenics, a movement of mostly racists and anti-immigrant citizens who wanted to sterilize “inferior” people. Earl Warren is one of the hundred because as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the 1950s and ’60s, his rulings and leadership advanced the civil rights movement. But as attorney general of California he favored the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. US Senator Paul Wellstone (Minnesota), who inspired the community organizing movement, voted against the rights of gay people to marry.

Dreier’s list of courageous leaders, crusading journalists and fearless organizers who inspired and mobilized active followers have one thing in common. They played important roles in building social justice movements.

To qualify for inclusion in the book they had to challenge the rich and powerful in a way that fed social movements for democracy and equality. That’s why you won’t find Charles Lindbergh, Walt Disney, or Ronald Reagan in this book.

A professor of politics at Occidental College and a long-time activist, Dreier offers important lessons for today’s activists. Many groups are too “inside,” too dependent on public officials, foundations and corporate sponsors for money, which inhibits them from putting direct action and electoral pressure on the establishment. Others groups become marginalized by relying entirely on “outside” approaches and don’t have the influence needed to push politicians and agencies.

Dreier’s book shows it’s not an either/or proposition. A close reading of his book also explains why Barack Obama had such limited success during his first term. Dreier insists that social change can happen only if both “outsiders” and “insiders” play a role in movements for progressive change.

Dreier’s three central notions are that the radical ideas of one generation—like those expressed by Occupy Wall Street—often become the common sense of the next generation. But to bring these ideas into the mainstream requires not only courageous and forward-looking people untethered to the establishment, who organize social movements, like those nameless Occupy Wall Streeters. Leaders of single issues and small community based groups fighting on behalf of the poor for social justice may seem politically weak and fragmented. Leaders should see themselves as part of the larger social movement demanding equality for all. Social movements need leaders both within the movement as well as in the establishment—most importantly public officials—who can help articulate, inspire and legitimize the organizers’ efforts.

Dreier organizes the 100 profiles chronologically so readers can see the chain of change over time, and can also see how many of the people in the book were involved in many different movements over many decades. As Dreier points out, they were long-distance runners, not sprinters.

Many of the people in Dreier’s book were involved in urban movements. In the early 1900s powerful businessmen routinely bribed politicians, exploited immigrants from abroad and migrants from rural areas in the burgeoning factory system, and got rich from their privately owned garbage collection, street cleaning, and utility monopolies. In response, progressives and radicals catalyzed a movement for urban reform. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the dreadful conditions in Chicago’s working class neighborhoods and slaughterhouses. Lincoln Steffens’ muckraking book The Shame of Cities revealed the widespread corruption that produced poorly paved, refuse-strewed streets, dangerous, dusty alleys, and ramshackle crowded firetraps called City Hospitals. Eugene Debs and Stanley Hillman organized unions and Jane Adams and Alice Hamilton spread the settlement house movement, to empower the urban working class.

While these activists and writers worked on the outside, they needed an “inside” strategy. They promoted radical ideas, like an eight-hour work day, government inspection standards for milk and meat, and the public ownership of electric plants, railroads and trash removal systems. But they needed to find allies in office public office to embrace those ideas and in a position to get legislation passed. Into that void stepped Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson, Wisconsin Governor (and later Senator) Robert M. La Follette, and California Governor Hiram Johnson. After the Triangle Fire of 1911, which killed 146 women and raised the consciousness of Americans, particularly New Yorkers, about the terrible slums and sweatshops, it was Robert Wagner, a New York state legislator (and later a U.S. senator) who fought successfully to enact the first reform laws—laws that later became the model for the New Deal.

During the 1960s, Jane Jacobs, armed with her typewriter, a network of community activists, and her moral authority defeated the power broker, Robert Moses, by pressuring New York Mayor John Lindsay to cancel plans for an expressway that would have sliced across Lower Manhattan and displaced hundreds of businesses and the homes of 2,000 families. Dreier reminds us how “[she] changed the way we think about livable cities bulldozing low-rise housing in poor neighborhoods and replacing it with tall apartment buildings…” and that “Her efforts in New York were part of a broader grassroots movement around the country to stop government agencies, typically with business support, from destroying poor and working-class communities—a process that activists often called ‘Negro removal,’ paving the way for what became known as ‘advocacy planning.’”

In 2009, as Obama entered the oval office, the nation was holding its breath, wondering if the new president could solve the nation’s knotty problems. CEOs and lobbyists at our nation’s banks, drug, insurance companies, and energy companies were doing whatever it took to oppose any reform that might diminished corporate America’s power and profits. The acquisitive and greedy business executives and lobbyists dug deep into their pockets to make sure any attempt to tax cut taxes for the rich to raise revenue would fail. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce stood ready to oppose any attempt to make it easier for workers to form labor unions.

Community based groups, blacks, and Hispanics who had worked hard for Obama hoped for a new day.

Leaders of community groups, instead of keeping their members and supporters active, let them off the hook while leaders and followers were quite happy to let Obama do the change, while they went to work, looked for work, entertained themselves, and attended to their families. Democratic changes don’t happen that way. Obama was perfectly happy to discourage housing and community groups from any independent action.

The White House did not understand the value of having outside-the-party groups, including community organizing and housing groups, unions, faith groups, and progressive think tanks, operating independently and more radically, in order to change public opinion and the keep the pressure on moderate Democrats who were lukewarm about the progressive policy agenda Obama campaigned on. Instead, these groups lacked the capacity to mobilize people at the grassroots level. They acted like what political scientists call an “advocacy” group, not an “organizing” or “social movement” group. Lobbyists and researchers, not organizers, composed their small and underpaid staff. Their methods were polite and nonconfrontational. Some were afraid of being left out of the action or undermining Obama’s ideas.

Now that Obama has been re-elected, progressives hope that he will he learn one of the key lessons of Dreier’s book: Every major improvement in economic, social, and political conditions during the 20th Century has occurred when the insiders and outsiders work together pushing for change.

In recent decades, housing and community development groups generally fit Dreier’s description of marginalized outsiders—politically weak, fragmented, and generally viewed unfavorably by the suburban members of Congress and white middle-class homeowners. Urban activists can learn a great deal from Dreier’s book, including his final chapter that looks at organizing successes during the past dozen years.
Dreier’s well-written and inspiring book belongs on the shelves of all social justice activists and would be a great gift for Americans, young and old, who need to be taught (or reminded) that, as Dreier writes, we all stand on the shoulders of the progressives and radicals who made America a more livable and humane society.

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