This panel features individuals connected to politics and social issues of the time, including civil rights leaders, suffragists, lawyers, politicians, and labor union activists.
The Political Front
(1) James Weldon Johnson
Best remembered for his leadership of the NAACP, Weldon Johnson served as executive secretary of that organization from 1920-1930. He was also a respected writer, lawyer, and composer for several Broadway shows.
As a young man Johnson moved to New York during the Great Migration, and along with his brother he began writing and composing with moderate commercial success. In 1906 he helped with the successful presidential campaign of Theodore Roosevelt and was subsequently appointed as US Consul to Venezuela from 1906-1908 and Nicaragua from 1909-1913. Upon return to New York he continued his writing, specifically for the New York Age, an influential African-American newspaper based in the City.
By 1916 his gift for writing and diplomacy led him to a post as field secretary with the NAACP where he built and revived local chapters of the organization. In the course of this work he opposed race riots in northern cities and engaged the NAACP in mass demonstrations. He organized a silent protest parade of more than 10,000 African Americans down New York City’s Fifth Avenue on July 28, 1917 to protest the still-frequent lynchings of blacks in the South.
The return of soldiers from WWI increased competition for work and housing to a fierce degree, sparking social tensions and white racial violence against blacks. In 1919 he organized peaceful protests of this violence in what would be known as the “Red Summer,” a term coined by Johnson himself. The following year he was chosen as the first black Executive Secretary of the NAACP, a post he would hold for the next 10 years. During his tenure with the NAACP Johnson was known for his involvement in the Harlem Renaissance – he had great admiration for black, musicians, and writers and sought to increase awareness of their talent throughout wider society. He died in a car crash in 1938 and has since been posthumously honored many times.
(2) Clarence Darrow
In 1925, when John Scopes found himself on trial for teaching evolution in school, he didn’t get just any lawyer — he landed America’s most famous lawyer: Clarence Darrow.
Back in 1894, Darrow had left a lucrative position as a railroad attorney to defend strikers and labor leaders. He’d made a name for himself in the American Civil Liberties Union, until he was accused of bribing a jury. Though never convicted, Darrow suffered a mental collapse after the incident.
However by the 1920s, Darrow made a career shift to criminal law. Earning up to $250,000 a case, his victories made national headlines. He used his skills on Scopes’ so-called “monkey trial” when putting William Jennings Bryan, three-time Presidential contender and later Secretary of State, on the stand.
In front of a crowd of thousands, Darrow and Bryan argued over the literal interpretation of the Bible. So heated was the examination, the men were shaking fists at one another. The press concluded that Darrow had exposed Bryan’s beliefs as “mindless,” and five days after the trial ended, Bryan died.
(3) William Randolph Hearst
William Randolph Hearst could be called the great grandfather of such sensational media outlets as the National Enquirer and TMZ. At his peak, Hearst owned 30 papers in major American cities and a string of magazines, creating the world’s largest media empire. Circulation reached 20 million readers a day in the 1930s.
But it was early in his career, in the late 1880s, that he was in a bitter circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. To increase sales, both papers indulged in “yellow journalism” — writing sensationalized stories with minimal fact checking.
Hearst served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and had unsuccessful bids for both Mayor of New York and Governor of the state. Given his editorial control and reach, Hearst held enormous political influence. After the end of World War I, he used his bully pulpit to call for an isolationist foreign policy to keep the U.S out of European issues. His life story was the inspiration for the Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane.
(4) William Jennings Bryan
Bryan was a fiery Democratic from Illinois. His commitment to politics was such that he left his home state to seek more favorable odds for elected office in Nebraska. By the age of 30, he achieved a Congressional seat representing the Populist party. And by 1896, he’d won the Democratic convention with his fervent oratory style.
During the next three election cycles, Bryan campaigned tirelessly only to be defeated by McKinley and then William Howard Taft. However, he proved to be a better kingmaker than ruler. Bryan worked for the presidential nomination of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Upon his victory, Wilson named Bryan secretary of state.
When World War I broke out, Bryan was committed to pacifism and neutrality. When Germany sank the Lusitania, Bryan resigned rightly thinking Wilson would lead the country into war. Thereafter, Bryan worked for peace, woman suffrage and curbing the teaching of evolution, even involving himself in the famous Scopes trial.
(5) Nellie Tayloe Ross
In 1922, Governor William Ross of Wyoming died while in office, thrusting his widow, Nellie, into a special election for his seat. Though she did not campaign, she handily won the race — making her the first woman governor in the United States.
She pushed forward policies to reform banking, protect women workers and miners, and provide assistance to farmers. Ross was narrowly defeated in 1926, but remained active in her party, serving as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Ross created more history when appointed by FDR to serve as director of the U.S. Mint in 1933, making her the first woman to hold that position. It took time for the Mint’s staff to warm up to her, thinking she was just another clueless appointee. However under Ross, the Mint recovered from the Depression era and saw a huge uptick for coins, making necessary two and sometimes three work shifts to meet demand.
(6) Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell was as rare as a person gets in her time. Born to former slaves of mixed-race, her family was part of the black elite in post-Civil War Memphis. Responding to her family’s emphasis on education, Terrell earned a master’s degree from Oberlin College in 1888.
A pioneer in education she taught many places, including Howard University, and pushed the concept of kindergartens in Washington D.C. public schools. But Terrell also was well known for her activism. She was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a tireless worker for women’s suffrage.
Less known were her efforts with the War Camp Community Service. The group provided recreation outlets for thousands of men during World War I. And echoing the present, the organization morphed to address the needs of returning soldiers and even led a protest at the White House regarding limited job opportunities for African-American veterans.
(7) Frances Perkins
Perkins once said, “Being a woman has only bothered me in climbing trees,” and went on to become the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet. She used the post of U.S. Secretary of Labor, which she held from 1933 to 1945, to create programs for the nation’s most vulnerable.
She is known for her work on FDR’s New Deal, including oversight of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act during the Great Depression.
Many government benefits, still in use today, are credited to Perkin’s tenure. These include unemployment, welfare for the poorest Americans and retirement benefits. She also worked to create a minimum wage, child labor laws and the institution of the forty-hour work week, also known as — the weekend.
(8) Jeannette Rankin
The first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Jeannette Rankin represented Montana from 1917-1919 and 1941-1943. Brought up on a ranch, Rankin helped in the house, but also outside. She performed the tasks of a ranch hand from farm chores to working on machinery and carpentry. These experiences formed her opinion that although women labored with men as equals, they did not have an equal political voice. She became a champion of the suffrage movement.
Rankin also was a pacifist, opposing the U.S. entry into World War I. She again entered a nay vote some 24 years later when voting against World War II in 1941.
Perhaps her biggest achievement, Rankin was instrumental in the creation and passage of the 19th Constitutional Amendment, giving women the vote.
(9) Julia Lathrop
Julia Lathrop was the first woman ever to head a United States federal bureau as director of the United States Children’s Bureau from 1912 to 1921. Her work with civil service reform was rooted in Lathrop’s experience living and working at Hull House in Chicago. Hull House was an example of the reformist philosophy that rich and poor ought to live and work more closely with each other. While at Hull House, Lathrop worked with other reformers and activists to provide daycare, education and healthcare to the poor living in the surrounding neighborhood.
Her work at Hull House led to Lathrop’s appointment as first ever woman member of the Illinois State Board of Charities. In this role she helped introduce reforms such as the appointment of female doctors in state hospitals and the removal of the insane from state workhouses. Her work for the people of Illinois put her on the political map, and in 1912 President Taft appointed her the first director of the newly created Children’s Bureau.
As Director Lathrop instituted and oversaw research into child labor, infant mortality, juvenile delinquency, mothers’ pensions, and more. She came quickly to recognize that, “Work for infant welfare is coming to be regarded as more than a philanthropy or an expression of goodwill. It is a profoundly important public concern which tests the public spirit and the democracy of a community.”
In her final year as Director of the Children’s Bureau – and just two years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment – the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Act became the first federally funded social welfare measure in the US. The law focused on federal matching grants to states for prenatal and child health clinics, and it stands importantly as the first venture of the federal government into social security legislation. Even more notable is that the provisions and contents of this ground-breaking legislation were heavily informed by the work of the first female director of a federal department: Julia Lathrop.
(10) Eugene V. Debs
Eugene V. Debs was a labor organizer and founding member of both the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, which he later left. Outspoken in his resistance to American involvement in World War I and the Government’s suppression of anti-war activity, he delivered an anti-draft speech that violated the Sedition Act — an extension of the Espionage Act limiting speech. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where he was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. Nevertheless, he was on the 1920 presidential ballot as a socialist candidate and received almost one million votes.
“The master class has …. always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command…. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.”
(11) Dorothy Day
An activist at an early age, Day first fought for suffrage as a Silent Sentinel. She was jailed for picketing in front of the the White House and then went on a hunger strike while serving out her sentence. This is one of several times she turned to civil disobedience to make an important point.
At the age of 30, the journalist and social justice advocate left a wild life in New York City to convert to Catholicism. She used her fervor to start a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, and eventually an entire social justice movement within the church known as the Catholic Worker Movement.
Late in life she met Mother Teresa and worked alongside Cesar Chavez.
Day helped establish special homes to help those in need. The movement she created continues to thrive with more than 200 communities across the United States and another 28 communities abroad.
Several have called for Day to be put forward for sainthood for her social activism and commitment to her faith. In 2015, Pope Francis named her one of “four great Americans,” setting her alongside the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
(12) Lillian Wald
Lillian Wald was an American nurse, author and well-known humanitarian. After attending various medical and nursing schools, Wald began in 1893 to teach a home class on nursing at the Hebrew Technical School for Girls. It was during this time that she also began to care for the sick of Manhattan’s Lower East Side as a visiting nurse. She coined the term “Public Health Nurse” to describe her method of medical care, which integrated nurses into the public community.
At this same time Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement. By 1906 she had 27 nurses on staff to care for the poor immigrants on the Lower East Side, and by 1913 that staff had more than tripled to 92 people. The settlement eventually expanded into the Visiting Nurses Service of the New York, which today serves more than 160,000 people annually in the five boroughs of New York; Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties; and parts of upstate New York.
In 1903 she helped found the Women’s Trade Union League and served on the executive committee of the League’s New York City chapter. By 1910 her involvement in humanitarian action — specifically focused on women’s and minorities rights and the labor movement — had expanded to an international level when she and several colleagues went on a tour of Hawaii, Japan, China and Russia. She also was an early leader in what would become the National Child Labor Council, and became a founding member of the NAACP in 1909. The organization held its first major, public conference at Wald’s Henry Street Settlement.
Wald also organized New York City campaigns for suffrage, marched to protest the entry of the United States into World War I, joined the Woman’s Peace Party and helped to establish the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1915 she was elected president of the newly formed American Union Against Militarism (AUAM). She remained involved with the AUAM’s daughter organizations, the Foreign Policy Organization and the American Civil Liberties Union, after the United States joined the war. In 1922 she was named by the New York Times as one of the 12 greatest living American women, and in 1970 Wald was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
Wald never married and valued independence in her private life. Her most intimate relationships were with women — particularly Mabel Hyde Kittredge and Helen Arthur.
(13) Emma Goldman
Immigrating to the United States from Lithuania in 1885, Emma Goldman was a fiery, radical anarchist lecturer and activist. Throughout her life she advocated for populist causes such as workers’ rights, peace, birth control and “free love.” In line with her philosophy of sexual liberation, Goldman had erotic relationships with some of her fellow activists, including Ben Reitman, Alexander Berkman and Almeda Sperry.
Her speeches attracted huge crowds — and controversy. Eventually, Goldman was jailed and deported for speaking out against the draft. “We simply insist, regardless of all protests to the contrary, that this war is not a war for democracy. If it were a war for the purpose of making democracy safe for the world, we would say that democracy must first be safe for America before it can be safe for the world.”
(14) Helen Keller
As a young child, Helen Keller suffered an illness that left her blind and deaf. In the late 1800s, little was understood about how to educate children with special needs. With personal perseverance and that of her instructors, Keller earned a college degree and was a noted humanitarian, co-founding the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
When Keller was young, her family sought help from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. It was there that she was paired with a recent graduate, Anne Sullivan. The young teacher began by finger spelling words in Keller’s hand. Though it was a tantrum-filled, dramatic process, Keller eventually understood the relationship between words and object. This event has been depicted in many movies, books and television programs.
After college, Keller become an international speaker, authored 12 books and was an advocate for people with disabilities. She also was a pacifist. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
(15) Alice Paul
Alice Paul’s Quaker upbringing steeped her in the ideals of equal rights for women. She attended women’s suffrage meetings with her mother, but it was a stint in England that brought Paul to a new style of gaining rights for women — a militant one.
When she returned, her right to vote demonstrations turned violent and enraged leaders like Carrie Chapman Catt. Paul broke off from the main movement by 1916, forming the Congressional Union aimed at creating change via politicians. They picketed President Wilson, calling him “Kaiser Wilson,” as the U.S. entered World War I, angering many who thought such acts were unpatriotic.
Paul eventually was arrested and officials tried to get her committed to a sanitarium. The press got wind of the treatment, and Americans were appalled.
Wilson reacted, saying suffrage was part of what Americans were fighting for in Europe. The vote for women came shortly after the war, but Paul didn’t rest. She fought for an equal rights amendment for women, helping to push a bill introduced in Congress every year from 1923 to 1972. A vote went to the states to ratify in 1972 but the ERA fell short by three states by 1982.
Like many of her feminist colleagues, Paul drew strength and inspiration from her relationships with women. Lucy Burns, with whom she founded the union that became the National Women’s Party in 1916, was a close companion of Paul’s in work and life.
(16) Carrie Chapman Catt
Carrie Chapman Catt waged a home front battle during World War I — for a woman’s right to vote. And she was up for the fight. Born in Wisconsin, she graduated in 1880 as the only female at today’s Iowa State University and at the top of her class.
Soon she became involved with the suffrage movement in Iowa and eventually graduated to the national stage. Her coordination efforts are credited for Congress’ constitutional amendment granting women the vote. States signed on and by 1918 President Wilson backed the effort. In August 1920, the amendment passed. Chapman Catt went on to found the League of Women Voters shortly after the victory and was active in anti-war causes until her death in 1947.
Chapman Catt married twice (Leo Chapman in 1885 and George Catt in 1890) but maintained close, long-term relationships with women, including suffragist Mary Garrett Hay and architect Alda Wilson. Hay and Chapman Catt are buried next to each other in New York City.
(17) Jane Addams
In 1914, Jane Addams was one of the most widely known and beloved women in America. A best-selling author and a tireless social reformer, she was the founder of Chicago’s Hull House, which provided social services to the poor and working classes. But she was also an ardent believer in peace and spoke out against the war in Europe and American involvement.
After America entered the war in 1917, Addams was vilified for her views. Even the New York Times scolded her for being “unpatriotic,” and she was expelled from the prestigious Daughters of the American Revolution. After the war, she was a leading figure of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and in 1931 became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
“We believe in real defense against real dangers, but not in a preposterous ‘preparedness’ against hypothetical dangers,” wrote Jane Addams in a letter to President Wilson in 1915. “It has been the proud hope of American citizens ... that to the United States might be granted the unique privilege of helping the war-worn world to a lasting peace.”
Addams lived in an intimate partnership with philanthropist Mary Rozet Smith for more than 30 years, from the 1890s until Smith’s death in 1934.
(18) Woodrow Wilson
As the Democratic Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson was elected U.S. President mostly due to a split in the Republican Party. He was sent to the Oval Office with just over 40 percent of the vote.
With Democrats already controlling Congress, Wilson ushered in what is known as the Progressive Movement passing a laundry list of liberal policies, including antitrust acts and farm loan laws. Wilson also is credited with averting a nationwide railroad strike (and its ensuing economic crisis) with the Adamson Act, making law an eight-hour workday for railroad employees.
Though he tried to stay neutral as World War I began in 1914, Wilson was drawn into the conflict as Germans engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare. After intelligence recovered a telegram revealing the German intention to form an alliance against the U.S. with Mexico. Wilson felt America needed to act.
After the war, Wilson traveled to Paris, promoting the formation of a League of Nations for which he was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize.
(19) Teddy Roosevelt
After gaining massive popularity as a Rough Rider — the nickname given to the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry in the Spanish–American War — Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was elected the 26th President from 1901-1909. At age 42, he was the youngest person in history to serve as President of the United States.
Roosevelt rushed in the Progressive Era, which oversaw the break up of trusts, the regulation of railroads, enacted laws aimed at controlling the purity of food and drugs. He also established a multitude of new national parks, forests, and monuments.
A proponent of preparedness, Roosevelt greatly expanded the US Navy. He sent his ‘“Great White Fleet” around the world to project power and the image of “a big stick” in order to succeed in peaceful negotiations. In 1906 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his successful mediation of the treaty which ended the Russo-Japanese War.
During WWI, Roosevelt opposed President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of military isolation. In fact, Roosevelt was ready to once again saddle up for military service, but was never called upon to serve. He planned to run again for president in 1920; however, Roosevelt was in failing health throughout WWI and passed away in early 1919.
(20) John Calvin Coolidge
A young New England lawyer, John Calvin Coolidge opened a law office and spent 20 years working on wills and real estate cases. But somewhere in there, Coolidge — who went by Calvin— launched a political career. He was elected to his city council in 1898, working his way post to post until, twenty years later, his fellow Republicans nominated him in a successful bid for governor of Massachusetts. As a pro-business conservative, he ran a tight administration.
A year later, riots broke out across Boston as the police went on strike. Rather than negotiate, Coolidge called the state guard and refused to rehire strikers writing,“there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” His strong stance earned “Cool Cal” Coolidge national fame and the VP spot on the Republican ticket with Harding. They won the 1920 election with a strong mandate. Harding died suddenly on August 2, 1923, making Coolidge president —and a popular one at that.
(21) John Foster Dulles
Dulles served as US Secretary of State under President Eisenhower and was a significant figure in the early-Cold War era. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Dulles graduated from Princeton in 1908 and then attended George Washington University Law School. After passing the bar Dulles worked at NYC law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, specializing in international law. At the outset of WWI he tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected because of poor eyesight. Instead he received a commission on the War Industries Board, which coordinated the purchase of supplies during America’s military involvement in WWI.
In 1918 Dulles served as legal counsel to the US delegation at the Versailles Peace conference. He argued forcefully against imposing the crushing reparations on Germany that had been proposed by the allies. When the heavy reparations were imposed anyway, Dulles played a major role in designing the Dawes Plan which was a compromise intended to ease international economies out of the recession that followed WWI. Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s he continued his work in international law, focusing specifically on finance, loans and investment.
By 1944 Dulles was a prominent Republican – he served as Thomas Dewey’s chief foreign policy advisor during Dewey’s presidential candidacies in 1944 and 1948. In 1945 he helped draft the preamble to the United Nations Charter and served as a US delegate in 1946, 1947, and 1950.
In 1953 Dulles was appointed Secretary of State by President Eisenhower, and his overarching legacy in that role was to continue the US policy of “containment” of communism throughout the world. During his time in this role, Dulles concentrated on: building up NATO and forming other alliances; opposing communism at every turn; and supporting military coups to overthrow unsympathetic leaders in countries such as Iran and Guatemala.
In 1954 he was named Time’s Man of the year. He argued in 1955 that “neutrality has increasingly become obsolete and, except under very exceptional circumstances, it is an immoral and shortsighted conception.” He developed colon cancer in 1956 and was treated for it off and on until 1959 when he passed away at the age of 71. Among the many honors awarded Dulles are the National Medal of Freedom. Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia is named in his honor.
(22) Oliver Wendell Holmes
“Clear and Present Danger” isn’t just a good book. Supreme court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes coined the phrase as the rationale for the government to limit free speech during wartime.
The case revolved around anti-draft leafleting during World War I. In Schenck v. United States, the defendants believed free speech protected their right to encourage men to buck military induction. Holmes ruled that when actions endanger American interests, they can be considered criminal.
The controversial ruling continues to show up in cases involving draft card burning, terrorism and even the decision granting corporations the individual right to free speech. Subsequent Holmes arguments would become part of the American lexicon, including his judgment that made the yelling of “fire” in a crowded theater illegal.
His service on the Court ran from 1902 to 1932 and Holmes remains one of most quoted and respected members. And the Schenck ruling continues to reverberate.
(23) Louis Brandeis
Brandeis University in Massachusetts is named for “the people’s lawyer” — Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish person to sit on the Supreme Court. Born in Kentucky in 1856, Brandeis was known for fighting for workers’ rights, free speech and breaking up monopolies. He often refused payment for his work.
Brandeis became famous for defending the constitutionality of laws that oversaw worker hours and workplace conditions. In what has become known as the “Brandeis Brief,” he pioneered the use of sociological and scientific data to support a case. It’s credited for changing the direction of American laws and became the model for future Supreme Court cases.
President Woodrow Wilson admired his work and offered Brandeis a position in cabinet in 1913. He declined. President Wilson came knocking again in 1916, this time with a nomination to the Supreme Court. After hard-fought confirmation hearings, Brandeis’ nomination overcame the influence of anti-Semites and big business.
(24) Herbert Hoover
Herbert Hoover coordinated the feeding of World War I troops and later the war-ravaged citizens of Europe as head of the Food Administration under President Wilson — no small feat. It helped earn him the nickname “Master of Emergencies.” He rose to the rank of Secretary of Commerce, ushering in the St. Lawrence Seaway and the building of the Hoover Dam.
Later, he campaigned for the presidency in 1928 saying the country was “nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before.” Hoover won, but less than a year into his term, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. He couldn’t find a way out, leading to the rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the next president.
Hoover had one last tie to World War I. During the last months of his presidency, he ordered that a makeshift camp of more than 40,000 protesting veterans be cleared from Washington, D.C. The protesters were demanding promised bonus pay and the incident remains a stain on his legacy.
(25) John Edgar Hoover
Before John Edgar Hoover’s famous (or infamous) work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he worked for the Justice Department in the War Emergency Division. At the beginning of World War I, Hoover was made head of the Division’s Alien Enemy Bureau by President Wilson. In this role, Hoover used the 1917 Espionage act to jail “disloyal foreigners” without trial.
By 1919, Hoover’s attentions turned domestic. As the new head of the General Intelligence Division he ferreted out radicals bringing about the First Red Scare and the Palmer Raids. Under Attorney General Palmer, radical leftists and anarchists were arrested as fears mounted against communist radicals post World War I.
All this led Hoover to another directorship. Before there was an FBI, there was a Bureau of Investigation led in 1924 by Hoover. He greatly (and controversially) expanded the reach of the organization with modern police technology including centralized fingerprint and forensic labs. By 1935, it was a federal bureau — and Hoover, its director for life.
In this role, Hoover kept secret files on political leaders, amassed illegally. President Harry Truman asserted that Hoover wielded the FBI as his private secret police force.
(26) Samuel Gompers
The founding member of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was actually an Englishman. Samuel Gompers’ family immigrated in 1863 to New York City. It was there, as a kid, that he made cigars at home with his father to support the family.
As a young teen, he formed a debate club and practiced public speaking. At 14, he joined his first union, the Cigarmakers’ Local Union No. 15, and was immediately active in the organization.
In 1886, Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and spent 37 years as the organization’s president. He negotiated higher wages, shorter hours and encouraged members to be politically active in elections.
Under Gompers, the AFL supported World War I by avoiding strikes and attempting to boost morale. President Wilson appointed Gompers to chair the Labor Advisory Board on the Council of National Defense. As such, he traveled to France for the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as an official advisor on labor issues.
(27) W.E.B. Du Bois
William Edward Burghardt (“W.E.B.”) Du Bois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts —a member of a very small “free black” population in the town. Recognizing his talents, his neighbors rallied to raise money for Du Bois to attend the historically black college, Fisk University. Later he’d be the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard.
Passionate about equal rights for blacks, Du Bois rose to national prominence as a co-founder of the NAACP. He also publicly opposed Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise — an agreement that guaranteed only basic educational opportunities, while submitting the African-American population to white political rule. This, he felt, would not produce the needed African American intellectual elite for true equal rights.
As an author, Du Bois researched the experiences of American black soldiers in World War I France and documented widespread bigotry in the United States military. The year after his death, the many improvements he’d worked for all his life was enacted in the Civil Rights Act.
(28) Andrew Mellon
Sometimes the most important soldiers in a war are the bean counters. Considered a financial prodigy, Mellon was just 17 when his father put him in the lumber and coal business — and soon was turning a profit. Later he became a partner in his father’s bank and within two short years he owned it.
Perhaps it was this upstart mentality that led President Harding to appoint Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury in 1921. His abilities were so valued, he continue to serve in this post under three consecutive presidents. This has yet to be repeated.
It was Mellon’s life’s work to serve the country by reducing its huge federal debt from World War I. He’d watched the debt amount of $1.5 billion in 1916 increase to more than $24 billion at war’s end. His aggressive policies are credited with cutting debt numbers nearly in half.
(29) Eleanor Roosevelt
When Eleanor Roosevelt was 18, she saw her father’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on a New York train. They began a romantic correspondence — one vehemently opposed by Franklin’s mother, Sara. To put an end to the relationship, Sara spirited her son away on a Caribbean cruise. Despite her efforts, the young Roosevelts married in 1905.
Eleanor was never content to live in Franklin’s shadow. As First Lady, she broadcast her positions on political and social issues through press conferences, newspaper columns and radio shows. She used her profile and influence to advocate for the rights of women, minorities and refugees. Political work became Eleanor’s life, particularly as her relationship with FDR changed over time. Eleanor cultivated a passionate relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok in the early 1930s, even as she and Franklin continued their work together.
After FDR died, Eleanor championed the United States’ entry into the United Nations. She became its first delegate and chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
(30) Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the only president to have served four terms. His tenure, from 1933 to 1945, took the nation through the harrowing times of the Great Depression and World War II. As a young man, FDR was stricken with polio, often putting him in a wheelchair — and his future political career in jeopardy. However, it did not hold him back from a successful run for Governor of New York in 1928. There he enacted programs to combat the Great Depression on a statewide level.
As president, FDR expanded his ideas into the New Deal — multiple programs focusing on the “3 Rs,” Relief, Recovery, and Reform. These acts forever changed the lives of the urban unemployed, the rural poor, farmers and saved a generation of artists through work.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy,” and received approval from Congress to declare war. The U.S. economy was mobilized for the conflict and FDR ordered the internment of 100,000 Japanese American civilians — an act the government later apologized for in 2013.
Roosevelt navigated a two-front war strategy that ended in the defeat of the Axis Powers. FDR has been rated by scholars as one of the top three U.S. Presidents, along with Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
(31) Irving Berlin
Born Israel Isidore Baline, Irving Berlin was a Russian-born American composer and songwriter widely considered to be among the greatest in American history. Throughout the course of his 60 year career Berlin is estimated to have written 1,500 songs, 8 times being nominated for an Academy Award. The most popular include widely covered hits such as “White Christmas”, “Easter Parade”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”.
Berlin’s musical style was unique, using simple and straightforward American vernacular – especially the slang of the time – relating to everyday speech. His songs resonated greatly with everyday people, those whom Berlin called the “soul of America,” and made him a legend by the time he was 30 years old. George Gershwin claimed that he learned that ragtime – which was perfected by Berlin and would later became jazz – “was the only musical idiom in existence that could aptly express America.”
In short, Irving Berlin can be considered the father of modern American music, and one of the greatest songwriters in history.
(32) Nora Bayes
Bayes was already a professional actress and singer in Chicago’s vaudeville at 18 years old. She toured the country and even performed on Broadway. Later, she married singer-songwriter Jack Norworth and the pair created many hits including “Shine On, Harvest Moon.” They divorced in 1913, freeing Bayes to remarry four additional times.
Bayes participated in morale boosting during World War I by recording the patriotic song, “Over There.” The song became an international hit, which she graciously performed for soldiers on tour.
(33) Charlie Chaplin
War broke out in Europe just as the feature-length film “The Little Tramp,” starring Charlie Chaplin was gaining fame. By then, his silent movie antics were creating laughter on both sides of the ocean.
However, Chaplin endured criticism from both his home countrymen in England and Americans for not joining the armed forces. Few knew that the film star had tried to sign up with the U.S. Army, but was deemed underweight for the fight.
Instead Chaplin threw himself into war bond tours and made a film that poked at militarism, called “Shoulder Arms.” He was warned by officials not to make light of the war, but in the end soldiers were happy to have a laugh and enjoy a movie understanding of their plight. Chaplin films were shown to injured men, while soldiers in the trenches posted cutouts of the Little Tramp, hoping the enemy would “die laughing.”
Despite the beloved characters he created, the entertainer was undermined by the Red Scare of the 1950s and eventually exiled to Europe.
(34) D.W. Griffith
D.W. Griffith was an innovator in film bringing us many techniques audiences are familiar with today —including the “close up.”
In 1918, his movie “Hearts of the World” was an attempt to pull the American spirit into the war abroad. It was controversial in its graphic depiction of the war’s cruelty in Europe.
His landmark movie, “Birth of a Nation,” was the first ever feature-length film. Griffith stunned viewers with his location shots and camera mastery in this film about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
While the techniques were historic, the accuracy wasn’t. Scholars praise the filmmaking craft, but the subject matter was racist and rightly protested. The controversy likely helped at the box office and the film remains one of the highest grossing in history when figures are adjusted for inflation.
Griffith’s other legacy? He formed United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
(35) Mary Pickford
Known as “America’s Sweetheart” and the “Queen of the Movies,” Mary Pickford was a prolific actress in the early film industry. Pickford co-founded the film studio United Artists, was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a progressive philanthropist.
During WWI, she toured the country drumming up support and selling Liberty Bonds. Her stop on Wall Street had some 50,000 spectators, though she raised more — an estimated $5 million dollars in bonds— in Chicago. The Army made her an honorary colonel. Not bad for a Canadian!
At war’s end, Pickford started the Motion Picture Relief Fund (MPRF) to help needy actors. She spearheaded a fundraising plan, the Payroll Pledge Program. This payroll-deduction for studio workers gave one half of one percent of their earnings to the MPRF. By 1940, the organization was able to build The Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. This unique retirement community provides services for members of the motion picture and television industry.
(36) Edward Bernays
Nothing says success like getting more Americans to smoke and eat bacon. Dubious as that sounds, those were just two highlights of the career of Edward Bernays. He coined the term “public relations” after working for the U.S. government’s Committee on Public Information during World War I, an effort to sway public opinion for the war. Bernays (the nephew of Sigmund Freud) saw the power of messaging and was eager to put what he had practiced to use on a peacetime public. He employed a new tool called the press release to generate buzz around ideas and products.
In the 1920s, he created a campaign for a tobacco company to make female smoking more socially acceptable, calling Lucky Strikes “torches of freedom” for women. He did more of the same when nationally promoting a more hearty “All-American” breakfast habit that included bacon and eggs. (Yes, he was working for a bacon distributor.)
In his retirement, perhaps out of guilt, one of his final projects was for anti-smoking campaigns. There was no stopping bacon, apparently. In his obituary, Bernays was referred to as the “father of public relations,” no doubt for his pioneering strategies and his own self-promotion.