Unfinished Work: Walter Reuther and the March on Washington

John F. Kennedy with leaders of the March on Washington (Cecil W. Stoughton/Wikimedia Commons)

The 1963 March on Washington featured just one prominent white speaker. “We will not solve education or housing or public accommodations, as long as millions of Negroes are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs,” declared Walter Reuther, the legendary president of the United Auto Workers. “This rally is not the end, it’s the beginning of a great moral crusade to arouse America to the unfinished work of American democracy.” Thus did he confidently link the goals of organized labor to those of the black freedom struggle.

Next week will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the march, and Reuther’s seven-minute address is all but forgotten. Most Americans think of the great event, which ended with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s transcendent speech, solely as a proud landmark in the toppling of legal segregation and the building of a more racially tolerant society. It might even seem odd that King and his associates would have given a featured spot on the program to perhaps the most powerful labor leader in the country—one whom Barry Goldwater, then the leading Republican candidate for president, considered “more dangerous than Soviet Russia.” What was such a controversial white man doing up there?

In 1963 progressive unionists of all races routinely intertwined the goals of civil rights and economic justice. That’s why the official slogan of the day was “For Jobs and Freedom.” Tens of thousands of union members, mostly from the North, crowded together along the Reflecting Pool with civil rights activists who were taking a break from the dangerous work of liberating the South.

Today, by and large, Americans view King as a national icon whose “dream” has come true, at least in part. But most know little or nothing about the history of unions.

Today, by and large, Americans embrace the narrative of racial equality and view King as a national icon whose “dream” has come true, at least in part. But most know little or nothing about the history of unions, or they regard it as a dark tale of corruption, greed, and incompetence. Google hits for Jimmy Hoffa outnumber those to Reuther by a four to one margin. For labor’s fortunes to revive, its members and supporters will have to craft and tell a different and more attractive story.

They might start with the March on Washington. Most of the black men and women who organized the 1963 March were also labor activists, as William P. Jones explains in his fine new history. The idea was initiated by A. Philip Randolph, the seventy-four-year-old civil rights and union leader who was the sole black member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council and the Negro American Labor Council, formed in 1960 to abolish “the color line” in every institution from unions to schools to sports to government.

To plan the event, they hired Bayard Rustin—a pacifist, democratic socialist, and Randolph’s old friend. He wanted, according to Jones, to launch “an ambitious campaign to draw attention to ‘the economic subordination of the Negro,’ create ‘more jobs for all Americans,’ and advance a ‘broad and fundamental program for economic justice.’” The demands included a minimum wage almost double the existing one and public works jobs for the unemployed as well as the bans on discrimination that were later written into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The prospect of a huge demonstration on the Mall did not, at first, appeal to otherwise supportive whites like Reuther, or even to the moderate black men who ran the NAACP and the Urban League. They feared a large, militant crowd would alienate white lawmakers whose votes would be needed to pass a civil rights bill. But when they realized the March would take place anyway, with or without them, they rushed to endorse it.

Then, progressive unions like the UAW made sure the event would succeed. In New York and several other cities, mobilizers worked out of union halls. Dozens of labor groups chartered buses, trains, and even airplanes to get members to the capital city. The UAW paid for a first-class sound system, so that every speech would ring out along the Mall, and produced thousands of signs with the slogan, “Equal Rights and Jobs NOW” printed in big, block letters. Reuther, who often took Randolph’s side in pushing the AFL-CIO to take a more assertive stand against racism, was the natural choice to represent organized labor on the program.

The UAW leader and his fellow unionists also knew the civil-rights movement’s most eloquent leader was on their side. Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently spoke to labor audiences and consistently advocated their demands, while pressuring them to make equal opportunity a reality inside as well as outside their ranks. He wanted the U.S. to emulate havens of social democracy like Sweden, whose powerful workers’ movement had helped secure health care for all and an “equitable division of wealth.”

Knowing the 1963 March was largely union-made might reopen the question of labor’s larger role in U.S. history.

Knowing the 1963 March was largely union-made might reopen the question of labor’s larger role in U.S. history. While, at times, the movement abetted such benighted causes as a ban on Asian immigration, it did more, in a sustained way, to advance policies whose benefits most Americans now take for granted. The minimum wage and maximum hours, workers’ compensation, employee-financed health care, the right to free speech on the job—all these came about because wage-earners went on strike and alerted reformers and politicians to the inequities and indignities of the workplace. And not until 1935, when Congress, to stave off mass strikes and boost purchasing power, passed the National Labor Relations Act, did democracy legally extend from the polling booth to the factory floor.

During the Great Depression, unions also began to tear down racial barriers that President Franklin D. Roosevelt lacked the political courage to challenge. “I’ll tell you what the CIO has done,” reported one black steelworker in the late 1930s. “Before everyone used to make remarks about, ‘That dirty Jew,’ ‘that stinkin’ black bastard,’ ‘that low-life Bohunk,’ but you know I never hear that kind of stuff any more. I don’t like to brag, but I’m one of the best-liked men in my department. If there is any trouble, the men come to me.” At the time, the most anti-union states were also the most racist ones.

Today, even in their weakened condition, unions remain the only institutions in America in which working people of every race routinely act together to improve their lives. But they have no Reuther or King to sing their praises and hardly any labor reporters in the mainstream media to describe and analyze what they do or who have a sense of their historical significance.

A mass insurgency to raise the wages of non-union hourly workers would truly be a “moral crusade.” Yet it will take more than a series of single-day strikes at fast-food chains to put that together. In the end, there is only one way for labor activists to create a more favorable narrative about their movement. As a 1960s slogan put it, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”


Michael Kazin is the editor of Dissent.

Cross-posted from the New Republic.



Want to read our Spring issue for free? Sign up for our newsletter by March 31 to receive a full PDF when the issue launches.


×

Introducing the Solidarity Sub

Dissent has always been more than just the sum of its writing. It is a political community, across several generations and at least as many continents; a forum for debating visions of social change; a vehicle for advancing radical and egalitarian ideals.

We want to continue to be the voice of the democratic left for generations to come. But we won’t be able to do it without you.

For $10/month, become a solidarity subscriber.

You’ll receive your usual subscription (four issues per year), along with invitations to special events and an 
online gift subscription to give to a friend. Not to mention our eternal gratitude.

×

The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

×