A Call for America

It's been 50 years since the March on Washington and though much has changed, what remains the same is the call for America to focus on fairness, racial parity, equality and labor rights for all.

The 1963 March on Washington is remembered greatly for the works and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Behind the scenes labor figured prominently. The UAW helped fund and organize the march and put political muscle behind the legislative and policy goals that changed a nation. UAW President Walter Reuther understood the similarities of the two movements. "The jobs question is crucial," Reuther told those gathered between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument that day. "We will not solve education, or housing, or public accommodations as long as millions of Americans, Negroes, are treated as second-class citizens."

Charles Euchner, in his people's history of the March on Washington, describes two African-American women listening as Reuther rallied the crowd. "Who is that white man?" asked one. The other replied: "Don't you know him? That's Walter Reuther. He's the white Martin Luther King."

Immediately after the march, its leaders visited the White House to meet with President John Kennedy. After being welcomed in the Cabinet Room, King's first words were to ask Kennedy if he had heard Reuther's excellent speech earlier.

The friendship and mutual goals cemented a powerful relationship.

A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union and the lone black member of the AFL-CIO executive council, sought Reuther's help in advocating the Washington march. Reuther strongly urged the AFL-CIO leader George Meany, to throw the federation's support behind the march, but Meany refused.

The UAW chartered trains, buses, and planes to get workers to the event and more.

In the 1950s, the UAW donated money for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and in 1961, paid bail for unjustly arrested Freedom Riders.

Before the march, massive civil disobedience in Birmingham, Ala. resulted in vicious police attacks on demonstrators. More than 800 demonstrators were jailed.

The UAW dispatched two officials to Alabama with $160,000 in bulging money belts to free the unfairly detained civil rights activists.

In 1961, King addressed the union's 25th anniversary convention in Detroit where he emphasized the similarities between the UAW's sit-down strikes in auto plants in 1936 with the lunch counter sit-ins waged in the South by black students.

"Perhaps few people can so well understand the problems of autoworkers and others in labor as Negroes themselves," King told the 5,700 UAW delegates and guests, "because we built a cotton economy for 300 years as slaves on which the nation grew powerful, and we still lack the most elementary rights of citizens and workers."

On June 23, 1963, when King previewed his "I Have a Dream" speech in Detroit, more than 125,000 people gathered at the urging of the Trade Union Leadership Council for the "Walk to Freedom."

During Washington march, King sounded the call for jobs and a living wage. Black unemployment in 1963 was 10.9 percent -- some 2.2 times the white jobless rate of 5.0 percent. Sadly, African-Americans suffered a similar unemployment rate of 14.0 percent in 2012, compared to a 6.6 percent rate for whites.

With joblessness still far too high, the income gap between rich and everyone else widening, racism and discrimination still festering and cities such as Detroit in the throes of bankruptcy, the words of King and Reuther still call us to fight harder to achieve the unfinished agenda of civil rights and labor.