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.