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  • Writer's pictureChristine Reuther

The Man Who stood Behind MLK

My cousin, John S Reuther, is one of the many people in our family who honor and support the work that my great uncle, Walter Reuther, and his brothers, Roy and Victor, did while leading the UAW. (Victor was John's father and John's son, Sasha, directed and produced Brothers on the Line, a great documentary available on iTunes and Amazon.) Today John posted an excellent series of pictures of Walter with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It brought to mind how I came to appreciate the work that Walter and the UAW did in a whole new way through the eyes of my children.

I learned about the labor movement at home and studied it in college. I did an oral history with my great aunt Sophie, the first Reuther on the UAW payroll. I will always remember her description of being run out of Anderson Indiana, where she was organizing women who worked in the parts plants there, by the Pinkertons.

Walter Reuther standing behind Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

It was harder for me to convey to my children the importance of the work that my father's family did. They didn't have the same immediate connection. I had lived with Sophie and Victor for part of a summer in Washington DC. Victor's older brother, Ted, was my grandfather. I remembered family gatherings in Wheeling where my great grandfather, Valentine Reuther, held forth on the same principals of collective action that he preached to his sons when they were growing up. Valentine was a teamster, the kind that drove teams of horses, for a brewery in Wheeling. But for my three girls, Valentine, Walter and even Victor, the youngest brother, were photographs in a family album and some of the books we kept on the special bookshelf in the living room.

That was the situation until my oldest daughter was in middle school and my youngest was in kindergarten. We sat down one evening over the long weekend that included Martin Luther King Day to watch a PBS documentary about the "I have a Dream" speach on the Mall. When the camera finally captured Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, my husband and I pointed at the same time and said, "There is Uncle Walter!" And he was right there, standing behind Dr. King. It impressed my children, who knew about the civil rights movement from school, and persuaded them that Uncle Walter must have been a big deal.

And Walter was a big deal in both the labor movement and the civil rights movement. As Dr King noted more than once, his movement used the sit down strikes pioneered by the labor movement in Flint MI. Walter and UAW joined Dr. King in his March in Detroit in 1963, making it the largest march for civil right to have occurred up until then. When Dr. King and 800 marchers were jailed in Alabama on a march, Walter and the UAW posted $163,000 in bail to get them out. Accounting for inflation, that would be more than $1.3 million today.

Walter Reuther and Dr. King saw the civil rights movement as the logical extension of the labor movement. Economic justice wasn't justice if it only applied to part of the population. Walter caused the UAW to break with the CIO because they diverged on the importance of supporting civil rights for people of color. Dr. King saw unions as a force that could sweep away intransigent poverty.

I think my great Uncle Walter would gave been proud to know his great grand nieces realized he was important because he stood behind Dr. King.

I know I am.


For more about Sophie, who was a heroine of the labor movement:

For more about the Reuther Brothers and my cousin's amazing film about their work with the UAW:

You can watch the movie on Amazon:

For more information about Walter Reuther and the Reuther family:

For more about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s support for the Labor Movement:

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