The White Man Who Marched On Washington

by Matt Sitman


Michael Kazin revisits a neglected episode in the Civil Rights movements:

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.

[This week] will mark the 50th 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?

The answer? Labor unions had been on the right side of the race question for decades:

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.

Update from a reader:

Great piece on Walter Reuther. He was my grandfather’s roommate for four years in Detroit in the 1920s. They did not agree on politics, since my grandfather was seriously to the right of Reagan. He had started out working on the line at Ford (where he met Walter), but owned his own tool-and-die shop, so he hated unions. But he always said that Walter Reuther was the most honest man he ever knew. One of the cheapest, too: they would double-date, and Gramps always had to drive, because Walter didn’t want to pay for gas.

(Photo: Walter Reuther, second from right, at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, via Wikimedia Commons)