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Top 20 Celebrity Activists of All Time

An inside look at stars ranging from Harry Belafonte to Ronald Reagan

President Jimmy Carter and singer Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson performs for former President Jimmy Carter at a 1996 concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of Plains, Ga. — Thomas S. England/Getty Images

Willie Nelson

As a political activist, Nelson calls to mind another Texan who made a mark in Washington: "Good Time" Charlie Wilson, the late Democratic member of Congress who was known for his hard partying, his rebellious streak and his undeniable effectiveness.

Nelson isn't the typical celebrity who trades (expensive) jeans and sneakers for a briefcase and a button-down when he comes to Washington; he claims to have once smoked marijuana on the White House roof during the Carter presidency. But along with fellow singers Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Nelson played a critical role in building one of the sturdiest vehicles ever constructed for celebrity political engagement: the annual Farm Aid concerts that have raised tens of millions of dollars to support family farmers since the first show in 1985.

Nelson has had less success with his other causes: legalizing marijuana, mobilizing opposition to the Iraq war before the 2003 invasion and touting Dennis Kucinich for the Democratic presidential nomination. But the durability of the commitment to Farm Aid from Nelson and the other founders (each of whom still sits on its board) sets them apart in a field where commitment often burns as brightly, and as briefly, as fame itself.

Next: Paul Newman >>

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