Born: Wheeling, WV
Work: United Auto Workers, President
Role in March: Speaker, Supporter
Walter Reuther bathed in applause after delivering his speech at the March on Washington and worked his way back to his seat. He reached out, instinctively, for hands and hugs. And then he sat down.
Reverend Eugene Carson Blake, a Protestant leader who also spoke that day, leaned toward him.
"How do you do that?" he asked.
"Easy," Reuther said. "When you speak at union halls—for conferences and conventions and board meetings—you're always competing with people talking at tables, waiters coming and going, doors opening and closing, plates crashing, and union members heckling, and you still have to keep people listening. It's a formula," Reuther told Blake. "You get the audience with jokes. Joke, laugh, make a point; joke, laugh, make a point; joke, laugh—and then give the message of the day."
"Whatever you do," Reuther told Blake, "don't write out a text. Reading kills a speech. When you script a speech, you talk to your text. But you need to talk to the audience."
But even the best speech will only carry people so far.
"You're having the same problem as me," Reuther told Blake.
"Yeah, how's that?"
"Well, the leadership says all the right things, but the locals haven't heard yet."
Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), thrived in chaos—negotiating contracts with the Big Three automakers, addressing rebellious affiliates, confronting the white racism in union locals, engaging in Democratic Party intrigue, collaborating behind the scenes with the president, battling other labor leaders like George Meany for primacy. Sometimes explosive, Reuther found ways to assert himself in a noisy environment.
Since A. Philip Randolph first announced plans to hold a massive march on Washington, Reuther had played a major role. Labor had two resources the march would need—money and bodies. Reuther also had an extensive political network and a close working relationship with President John F. Kennedy.
The White House asked him to infiltrate the march and steer it away from radical rhetoric and direct action. And so he did. During the planning meetings in New York, Reuther wondered aloud about where to put 200,000 people in Washington. Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill—where the march was originally planned to take place—could never hold such a throng. Might it be better to move the march to the National Mall, between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial? That was sly.
For years, Reuther had made civil rights a central part of his politics. Labor unions were almost as lily-white as southern schools and Sunday church services. Workers in factories, mines, and furnaces and at construction sites often considered civil rights a zero-sum game. If blacks get the jobs, we don't. But Reuther worked hard to convince laborers everywhere, including the South, to accept blacks. Workers are workers, he said, and need to stick together. "Make up your mind whether you want your paycheck or your prejudice," he said.
By appearing at the march, Reuther defied the don of the labor movement, AFL-CIO President George Meany. In a four-hour meeting, Reuther and Randolph begged the union's executive committee to endorse and contribute to the march. "The labor movement is about the struggle of the people who are denied their measure of justice," Reuther later said, "and if the labor movement is not in the front rank ... [it] begins to forfeit the loyalty of the people whom I profess to lead and represent."
Meany argued that the march would produce riots and bloodshed. Reuther pointed out that more than 100,000 people had rallied in Detroit the previous week without any disorder.
"But George Meany made this a personal thing," Reuther told his UAW board. "You were either voting for him or against him. It had nothing to do with the idea, and after four hours of this, it was quite obvious that George Meany did not want the council to authorize participation."
Meany allowed a special committee to draft a statement of sympathy for the march, then ripped it up and substituted his own statement lauding the AFL-CIO's leadership in civil rights. After the meeting, Reuther told reporters that that official statement "is so weak they will have to give it a blood infusion to keep it alive long enough to mimeograph it."
Reuther frequently complained that the labor movement had gotten sluggish and bureaucratic, lacking the daring of a quarter century before, when sit-down strikes forced automakers to capitulate to union demands. In his own union, he battled southern whites who opposed civil rights and working with blacks. When he sent $50,000 to bail out civil rights protesters, white locals burned with anger. For years, the labor movement assumed that progress for all workers would eventually lift up the black worker. Reuther rejected that idea and spoke out for civil rights before most other prominent white leaders. After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Reuther warned Democrats against "straddling" on the issue. Straddle is exactly what the Democrats did. Civil rights laws were essential to prodding everyone—business firms, unions, local government—to do the right thing.
Meany and Reuther had long been rivals. The two battled for the attention of the president and congressional leaders. As head of the UAW, Reuther was part of the AFL-CIO executive board. Meany regularly thwarted Reuther's efforts to speak for labor and assume policy positions (like the post Reuther craved as a labor delegate to the United Nations). Reuther's many contacts with the Kennedy administration only increased Meany's ire. Reuther regularly met with the president, for hours at a time. In those White House meetings, Reuther sometimes lamented the way Meany treated him; Kennedy sympathized but said Reuther had to accept Meany's status as the top labor leader.
As Reuther became a national spokesman for civil rights, he also struggled to address the UAW's own problem of black exclusion. Reuther had promised blacks a leadership position in the UAW back in 1936; 23 years later, when no blacks sat on the UAW board, a rebellion took place. A leader of the black uprising attacked the UAW leadership for talking a good game on civil rights while resisting, "with every means at their disposal, any efforts to change the lily-white character of their own international executive boards."
On this day of the march, Walter Reuther could bask in the sun as the most significant white figure in the March on Washington. He had mobilized organized labor and served as a conduit between the Kennedys and the movement.
When he spoke, he stated the matter simply: "We must determine now—once and for all—whether we believe in the United States Constitution."
Reuther called civil rights the key to America's credibility in the Cold War.
"We can make our own freedom secure only as we make freedom universal so that all may share its blessings. We cannot successfully preach democracy in the world unless we first practice democracy at home. ... There is no halfway house to human freedom. What is needed in the present crisis is not halfway and halfhearted measures, but action, bold and adequate to square American democracy's performance with its promise.
"If we fail, the vacuum created by our failure will be filled with the Apostles of Hatred, who will search for answers in the dark of night, and reason will yield to riot, and the spirit of brotherhood will yield to bitterness and bloodshed, and the fabric of our free society will be torn asunder."
As Reuther spoke, he pumped his left arm, pointing with his forefinger. One of Reuther's assistants at the UAW, Irving Bluestone, stood nearby on the platform. Bluestone overheard two black women talking.
"Who is that white man?" the first asked.
"Don't you know him? That's Walter Reuther. He's the white Martin Luther King."
Charles Euchner is the author or editor of a dozen books and is the creator and principal of the Writing Code™, a writing program. Now a case writer at the Yale School of Management, he has taught writing at Yale University and was the founding executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University. This profile and the others of Randolph and Rustin are excerpted from Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington, by Charles Euchner. Copyright © 2010 by Charles Euchner. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.
Reprinted from American Educator, Fall 2013
Teaching the March on Washington
The Move to Unity
Labor's Role in the March on Washington
By William P. Jones
Key Figures behind the March
By Charles Euchner
Two Civil Rights Activists Remember the March on Washington
By Norman Hill and Velma Murphy Hill