On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Martin Luther King wrote a letter to union president Walter Reuther, congratulating him and observing: “More than anyone else in America, you stand out as the shining symbol of democratic trade unionism” (King, 17 May 1961). King had a stalwart ally in Reuther, who gave critical backing to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was a supporter of King’s civil rights tactics.
Reuther was born on 1 September 1907, in Wheeling, West Virginia, one of four sons of labor official Valentine Reuther and his wife, Anna. At age 15 Reuther went to work at the Wheeling Steel Corporation, serving as an apprentice tool and die maker. In 1927 he went to Detroit, and by 1931 he was a foreman supervising 40 other tool and die workers at the Ford Motor Company. During these years he completed his high school education and attended Wayne State University for three years.
Reuther left Ford in 1932, and in 1933 he and his brother Victor embarked on a three-year, around-the-world trip, traveling through England, Russia, Central Asia, China, and Japan and observing auto work and the labor movement in these countries. Reuther organized and became the first president of West Side Local 174 of the newly formed UAW, increasing membership from 78 to 30,000 members between 1936 and 1937, which was a precursor to the civil rights sit-ins of the 1960s.
Reuther was elected national UAW president in 1946, a position he held until his death. That year, he also became vice president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), ascended to that body’s presidency in 1952, and was at the forefront of the effort to merge the CIO with the American Federation of Labor, forming the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 1955. With the amalgamation of the two bodies, Reuther became an AFL-CIO vice president and also served as president of its Industrial Union Department. His tenure in these positions ended when the UAW withdrew from the AFL-CIO in 1968.
During his years as a top labor leader, Reuther took forceful positions inside and outside the labor movement with regard to civil rights. He sat on the national advisory boards of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality, urged union locals to participate in the May 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, joined the call for protests later that year against South Africa’s apartheid regime, and was a scheduled speaker at the May 1960 founding convention of the Negro American Labor Council. Reuther invited King to be a speaker at the 25th anniversary celebration of the UAW the following year, and in 1965 marched with King in the Selma to Montgomery March.
Reuther mobilized the UAW and other unions on behalf of the August 1963 March on Washington. He attempted to obtain the AFL-CIO’s endorsement for the march, but president George Meany’s tepid support caused Reuther to remark: “The statement is so anemic that you’d have to give it a blood transfusion to keep it alive on its way to the mimeograph machine” (Pomfret, “AFL-CIO Aloof”). Reuther spoke at the event, and later that day said the event “proves beyond doubt … that free men, despite their different points of view, despite their racial and religious differences, can unite on a great moral question like civil rights and the quest for equal opportunity and full citizenship rights” (King et al., 28 August 1963).
After King’s assassination, Reuther marched with Coretta Scott King in Memphis on 8 April, in support of the peaceful resolution of that city’s sanitation strike, and donated the largest check from any outside source, $50,000, to the striking sanitation workers. When he and his wife were killed in a 1970 plane crash, Coretta Scott King eulogized Reuther, saying, “He was there in person when the storm clouds were thick” (Flint, “Reuther Praised”).
Jerry Flint, “Reuther Praised in Funeral Rites,” New York Times, 16 May 1970.
King, Reuther, et al., Interview by Jay Richard Kennedy, 28 August 1963, JFKWHCSF-MBJFK.
King to Reuther, 17 May 1961, MLKP-MBU.
Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther, 1995.
John D. Pomfret, “AFL-CIO Aloof on Capital March,” New York Times, 14 August 1963.