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The UAW leader who helped MLK tie organized labor to broader civil rights movement

The United States now honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a day of remembrance each January. However, while he was alive, his public disapproval ratings were as high as 75%. Many Americans disliked him for a variety of his stances, from expanding civil rights protections to opposing the Vietnam War. Still, King found supporters of his work throughout the nation, among them Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers union.

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Two movements, shared goals

Reuther, a white man who led the UAW from 1946 to 1970, was born in West Virginia to Valentine Reuther, a socialist and member of a brewery workers’ union, says Gavin Strassel,  a UAW Archivist with the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. Strassel says early childhood lessons may have contributed to Reuther’s involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.

“I think his father really instilled that teaching that all people are created equal, they all deserve labor rights, they all deserve dignity at the workplace,” Strassel said. “That’s something that Walter carried with him throughout his life, from his early career in the labor movement until his passing in 1970.”

Strassel says both King and Reuther saw connections between the civil rights and labor movements, including shared priorities on issues like right to work and fair wages. Reuther's support for King started at an early point in his career.

“Reuther put the resources that the UAW had built up, becoming such an important union in the country, at the disposal of Dr. King,” Strassel said. “He would have staffers work on these different campaigns within the civil rights movement. ... Publications that the UAW printed that were distributed internationally, he would put messages from Dr. King within there.”

Strassel says some UAW Locals in Michigan were integrated—particularly Local 600, which represented workers at the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn and had a number of Black leaders. And thanks to Reuther's effort and influence, many autoworkers held more equitable views on race than workers in other sectors.

But racist sentiment still persisted among autoworkers throughout the U.S., and plenty disagreed with Reuther’s stance on civil rights. Strassel says that in the South, white workers frequently went on strike because they didn’t want to work alongside Black colleagues. That led Reuther to require a non-discrimination clause within all union contracts, Strassel says.

“Every time a hate strike like that came up, [Reuther] would take the side of the people pushing for integration, pushing for civil rights,” said Strassel. “He said repeatedly that he would be fine losing dues-paying members [rather] than giving into their demands to maintain their racist practices.”

From Detroit to D.C.

In June of 1963, a coalition of church leaders from Black congregations in Detroit, as well as political and civic leaders like Reuther, brought King to Detroit for a civil rights demonstration. Alongside the event organizers, King led more than 125,000 people in a march down Woodward Avenue—an event known as the Detroit Walk to Freedom.

“It was the largest civil rights demonstration up until that point,” Strassel said. “Also, there’s no actual proof of this, but the legend is that they gave Martin Luther King Jr. an office at Solidarity House, the headquarters for the UAW in Detroit, for that event, and that he wrote part of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,that he gave the earlier version of at Cobo Arena later that day, within the offices of the UAW's headquarters.”

Reuther also worked with the Big Six, a group of Black leaders who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place two months later in the U.S. Capitol. There, King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But there were a number of speakers that day, and Reuther was one of them, says Strassel. Here’s an excerpt from the labor leader's speech:

“We need to join together, to march together, and to work together until we’ve bridged the moral gap between American democracy’s noble promises and its ugly practices in the field of civil rights. American democracy has been too long on pious platitudes and too short on practical performance in this important area. Now, one of the problems is what I call that there are too much high-octane hypocrisy in America. There is a lot of noble talk about brotherhood, and then some Americans drop the ‘brother’ and keep the hood.”

King was assassinated in Memphis—where he was organizing with striking workers—in 1968. Two years later, Reuther and his wife May were killed in a plane crash. Coretta Scott King, a civil rights leader and King's wife, spoke at their funeral in Detroit.

Strassel says the UAW’s involvement with civil rights work continued after King’s and Reuther’s deaths. For example, the union worked against apartheid in South Africa, using government connections to put pressure on South African leaders.

More recently, in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, UAW president Rory Gamble called for an end to systemic racism in the U.S. and asked union members to pause for eight minutes and 46 seconds to honor Floyd’s memory.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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