I like the way this list is different from many other compilations of American "greats" — like Time magazine and Discovery Channel offerings, whose lists are populated with names like Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth and John Wayne. These people, it strikes me, were out to make a buck, and they sometimes stuck in their side pocket a reminder to improve humanity. Dreier is clear in his criteria for inclusion. He sought out people dedicated to social justice and to "using their talents to help achieve important progressive change." This makes the narratives consistently instructive and always gripping and inspiring.
I fear some readers will object to several of the names in the book. Teddy Roosevelt carried out imperialist wars, FDR imprisoned Japanese-American civilians in internment camps, and Lyndon Johnson expanded and intensified the Vietnam War. These men can claim valuable achievements, but how do their unjust misdeeds figure in? A friend of mine who was particularly vehement about the inclusion of Johnson acknowledged the significance of the Great Society program but believed this was fatally besmirched by the Vietnam War with its record of some 16 million killed, injured, or displaced, and the destruction of America's moral position in the world. There was also chronologically a coup in Brazil, the Dominican Republic invasion, mass massacres in Indonesia, and the Colonels' coup in Greece, all implemented on President Johnson's orders.
This raises for me the question of criteria for excluding a nominee. The author writes that none of the people in his compilation are saints, that everyone has troubles and makes mistakes. His stance is to be tolerant of missteps and foibles. While Dreier doesn't want to limit his choices to saints, is he willing, nevertheless, to banish devils? Can an action be so unacceptable and odious that it outweighs positive factors and prohibits inclusion? Is Dreier willing to use a smell test? I ask these questions recognizing that compiling a list like this can be grueling and controversial. No two people will put together an identical cohort. Dreier took his stab at it, and we should be grateful to have what he came up with.
With so many right-wing and callous influences saturating our culture, the book serves as a wholesome antidote. I hope progressives and others will read this book and, more importantly, give a copy to their sons, daughters, and grandchildren. I said earlier about how "Critics and Crusaders" had affected me. It could be that in 50-years-plus, some scarred veterans of the human rights struggle will be ruminating on how Dreier's book has impacted their careers and their views about what things are important in life.