5 Henry Ford
Henry Ford changed the American economy and society in two very distinct ways that aren’t necessarily dependent on each other. First of all, he refined the assembly line technique, which allowed for mass production of goods. It also meant that there was work available for even the most unskilled laborer and that factories would need more of them now that they could produce so much more. This development allowed Ford to produce a single car in less than two hours which meant that he could price them affordably and they could now be owned by more than just the richest Americans. Today, our cities, economies and culture are based around the fact that the majority of Americans can own a car. Think about it: no cars for the middle class would mean no suburbia.
4 Susan B Anthony
Susan B. Anthony did not start the women’s suffrage movement and she was dead years before the 19th amendment was passed in 1920, which gave women the right to vote everywhere in the United States. However, she was a major player in the movement and one of the people who managed to keep a lot of women (and men) working together for the cause. Anthony was particularly skilled at seeing the big picture. She was involved in abolitionism and the temperance movement and understood how activists for these causes could work together and build off of each other’s success. She was aware that women’s problems extended beyond suffrage: For example, women were paid less than men for the same work (a problem we’re still working on today). On the other hand, she was focused and was able to compromise, even if it meant leaving behind the more radical members of her own organizations, which is not to say she was ever timid. Anthony got arrested for casting a vote in the 1872 presidential elections and spent weeks lecturing about her case before the trial and then refused to pay the fine that she was sentenced with. To the day of her death, she never paid it and the American government didn’t have the guts to force her to pay up.
3 Albert Einstein
Unfortunately, I will not be able to go into great detail about Albert Einstein’s scientific contribution, solely because it’s way over my head. But I can tell you that his theory of relativity is widely regarded as a turning point in modern physics and is theory on which most of modern physics rests. He already had a Nobel Prize in physics when he became an American citizen in 1940 after deciding not to go back to Germany when Hitler rose to power in 1933. By that time he understood the danger that Hitler posed and was the first person to warn President Roosevelt that the Germans may be developing atomic weapons, leading to the establishment of the Manhattan Project. At the same time, he was outspoken about the dangers of using nuclear fission to create weapons. In fact, his political views, thoughts on religion and philosophy and even musical abilities (he loved to play Mozart on violin) were often given attention thanks to his reputation for genius.
2 Benjamin Franklin
Ok, here’s where I have to put in a caveat: Even though he was technically a politician for certain periods, Franklin was a whole lot more and it’s for that whole lot more that he makes it onto this list. Franklin started his career as an activist when he wrote letters to his brother’s newspaper under a pen name, since his brother had already refused to publish his writings. He later established an intellectual discussion group and the first American lending library. He eventually established his own newspaper and wrote several books which were colonial bestsellers, including his famous Poor Richard’s Almanackand his autobiography, which students are still required to read to this day. Add to that his many inventions, such as the Franklin Stove, bifocals and the lightning rod, and you’ll start to see why he gets points outside of politics. He founded the American Philosophical Society, the Academy and College of Philadelphia (later to become the University of Pennsylvania of Ivy League fame) and one of the country’s first volunteer fire companies. This list carefully avoids all things political but remember that there are plenty of those, too. If you’re not impressed by now, then I give up.
1 Martin Luther King Jr.
Easily the most recognizable face of the civil rights movement, King was an orator and organizer who advocated nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to unfair laws. As a preacher who went on to help found and lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he felt that black churches had the organizing power to bring attention to the issue of civil rights and the Jim Crow laws. He understood that the important thing was media coverage and strategically chose methods and places to protest to help bring sympathy from public opinion. Over the years King never forgot the needs of other oppressed and impoverished communities around him and often fought against poverty and, later, the Vietnam War. Although he was assassinated in April of 1968, his influence is still felt all over America as we find creative non-violent ways to protest injustice.
Honorable mentions go to inventors such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright brothers. While their inventions also changed America, they were limited to the specific field they each worked in.
But if you want to argue that they should have made the list, we’d love to hear it!