President, United Auto Workers (UAW)
|Walter Reuther was a lifelong champion of civil rights causes, and a powerful ally of Dr. King. In 1961, on the 25th anniversary of the United Auto Workers formation, Martin Luther King wrote to Reuther that “more than anyone else in America, you stand out as the shining symbol of democratic trade unionism.” And when Reuther died in a plane crash in 1970, King’s widow eulogized him, saying, “He was there in person when the storm clouds were thick.” Reuther broadened the aspirations of America’s labor movement beyond fighting for higher wages; he frequently fell into conflicts with other union leaders over his belief that the ultimate goal of organized workers should be to build a better world, not to simply protect their own interests.
From 1946 until his death, Reuther served as president of the UAW; starting in 1952, he also served as president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations until it merged with the American Federation of Labor, for which he served as a vice president until 1968. Race was sometimes a touchy subject for unions, but Reuther made it clear where he stood: He was on the boards of the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality, encouraged his unions to show solidarity with civil rights activists during protests and marches, and, in addition to speaking at the March on Washington, joined King on the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery following Bloody Sunday.
At the March on Washington, Reuther told Americans to pressure their politicians to act to address racial injustices, saying that “American democracy is on trial in the eyes of the world… We cannot successfully preach democracy in the world unless we first practice democracy at home. American democracy will lack the moral credentials and be both unequal to and unworthy of leading the forces of freedom against the forces of tyranny unless we take bold, affirmative, adequate steps to bridge the moral gap between American democracy’s noble promises and its ugly practices in the field of civil rights.”