Who Is the “Greatest”?

When Matt Lewis, a conservative blogger, interviewed me on his “Daily Caller” radio show last week, he mistakenly (and perhaps inadvertently) called my new book, “The 100 Greatest Progressives of the 20th Century.” In fact, the book is called “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.”  But his confusion is understandable, because most lists of “greatest” Americans include the usual suspects like Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, John Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan,  Walt Disney, Louis B. Mayer, D. W. Griffith, and even Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley.  You won’t find any of those names in my book.  They may have been accomplished in their specific fields, but they did not contribute to making America a more just, equal, or democratic society, which is how I define “greatest.”  Most of them, in fact, actively opposed movements for social justice. Henry Ford was a reactionary, an anti-semite, a vicious union buster, and an admirer of Hitler. Aviator Lindbergh shared Ford’s anti-semitism and admiration of Hitler.  Rockefeller, Disney and Mayer were corporate tycoons, right wingers, and union busters. Filmmaker Griffith was a pathbreaker in his use of camera techniques, but he was a rapid racist, as revealed in his most famous movie, The Birth of a Nation, which included positive portrayals of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan and outrageous stereotypes of African Americans. Reagan, a one-time union president, became a right-wing Republican and foe of progressive movements. Babe Ruth was a fantastic athlete and Elvis was a remarkable entertainer, but neither meet my criteria for greatness. Muhammad Ali used to call himself “The Greatest.”  He was referring to his boxing skills. If that was his only claim to fame, he wouldn’t be profiled in my book. But he was not only an outstanding pugilist but also a fierce opponent of America’s war in Vietnam who defied his government by refusing to be drafted, risking prison and the withdrawal of his boxing title.  Ali transcended his role as a sports figure to become a man acclaimed around the world as a person of conscience. So he does belong in my book of 100 Greatest Americans of the 20thCentury, along with folks like Eugene Debs, Jane Addams,  Emma Goldman, Helen Keller, W.E.B. DuBois, Dorothy Day, Norman Thomas, A.J. Muste, A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, Saul Alinsky, Pete Seeger, Howard Zinn, Gloria Steinem, Michael Harrington, Ted Kennedy,  Barbara Ehrenreich, Bruce Springsteen, and Michael Moore.

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