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OP-ED: By the Content of their Character

NNPA NEWSWIRE — In the summer of 1963, Reuther teamed up with Dr. King in Detroit for The Walk to Freedom, the largest Civil Rights demonstration in U.S. history at that point, with an estimated 125,000 people attending. Led by Dr. King and President Reuther, the massive march down Woodward Avenue drew attention to matters close to the Equal Rights mission and to the UAW — racism, segregation, discrimination and inequality in hiring, wages, education and housing.

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1965 — Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. and Walter Reuther, President of the UAW and the March on Washington
1965 - Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. and Walter Reuther, President of the UAW at the March on Washington.

The brotherhood of Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. and UAW President Walter Reuther

By Ray Curry, Secretary-Treasurer, UAW

America’s Black History, which we celebrate this month, offers abundant examples across the centuries of how one person can make a difference, how one person can move an entire people forward. I am lucky enough to have witnessed the results of two such difference makers firsthand, both in my job and in my life. Two men who found each other in their individual fight for human rights, and in doing so, helped shape the future of our nation.

So, this February, I would like to pay tribute to that relationship, to two heavyweight champions who fought together for America’s soul, and who transcended their time and place in helping to define it forever: The Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. and Walter Reuther, President of the UAW.

A long time before these two extraordinary men teamed up, their spirits were entwined. Dr. King understood the voice that organized labor gave to workers just trying to better their lot. He once characterized it in a speech to an AFL-CIO crowd: “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.”

For his part, Reuther confronted racism early on in the 1930s as a student at what is now Detroit’s Wayne State University. The incident involved a local hotel that was permitting white students to use its swimming pool but refused blacks.

When Reuther discovered this, he took on the injustice by organizing a protest that surrounded the block where the hotel was located with his fellow classmates. The action, typical of the times, resulted in all students being banned, black and white, but Reuther made a clear statement and went on to make a history of such battles.

Tireless fighters

In 1946, Reuther immediately took up social injustice upon becoming the UAW’s president by declaring that beyond the battle for worker rights it was “the union’s role to fight for the public at large.” Without waiting around for the country to get on board, Reuther took on the American Bowling League, which excluded black bowlers. In 1948, he began a bowling tournament in what is now UAW Region 1A in Michigan that allowed blacks and whites to bowl together. Today, that tournament still stands, and my brothers and sisters celebrate this rich tradition every year.

In 1949, just as the Civil Rights Movement was getting underway, he used his leverage to help bring about the first meeting in Washington, D.C., on civil rights legislation. Of his activism he once observed, “You can’t opt out of life, you have to make up your mind if you are willing to accept things the way they are.”

Both men knew what economic gain could bring. Early on, Dr. King took on anti-union politicians who he saw standing in the way of progress for America’s people of color: “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ … Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights.”

Reuther saw it the same way, conservative politicians ready to shut the door on equality and justice for all: “There is a direct link between ballot box and bread box,” he famously declared.

Both men knew the significance of fair housing. Walter Reuther started pushing for legislation, both lobbying for and devising fair housing programs, first in Detroit, and then nationally soon after the second World War. In the 1960s, he helped launch Operation Breakthrough, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program that used union-made manufactured housing to lessen the devastating impact the housing crisis was having on minority communities. The program helped create job opportunities in these locations, all the while encouraging racial and income integration in the larger community.

Doctor King, who knew all too well the misery that housing segregation caused for minorities, was himself a tireless warrior on this front. A 2018 article appearing in The Atlantic captures his fearlessness and tenacity for the cause:

“‘Kill him,’ a mob chanted as Dr. King marched across Marquette Park in the late summer of 1966. King had recently moved to Chicago, and on that August afternoon, he joined a Chicago Freedom Movement march to demand that realtors not discriminate against black residents seeking to live in white neighborhoods. A group of white counter-protesters grew violent and started hurling rocks, bottles, and bricks at the demonstrators, eventually striking Dr. King in the head. ‘I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen — even in Mississippi and Alabama — mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago,’ he said, shining light on a problem that white Northern liberals had ignored and let fester for far too long: de facto segregation.”

Resolve that will not break

Both men paid dearly in standing tall for all people: Reuther was confronted by Ford hired goons and beaten within an inch of his life while trying to organize workers. Would be assassins came to his door twice. Doctor King, who devoted his life to peaceful protest, was jailed repeatedly on just about every trumped-up charge imaginable. That rock thrown at him in Chicago knocked him off his feet. He stayed on the ground until he could shake off the cobwebs, get up again and keep right on marching.

None of this even slowed either man down for a moment in their fight for justice. Reuther marched with Dr. King in Selma, Montgomery, and Jackson. When King and 800 others were jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, Reuther turned to his fellow UAW members who raised $160,000 in bail money to get those arrested out of jail.

In the summer of 1963, Reuther teamed up with Dr. King in Detroit for The Walk to Freedom, the largest Civil Rights demonstration in U.S. history at that point, with an estimated 125,000 people attending. Led by Dr. King and President Reuther, the massive march down Woodward Avenue drew attention to matters close to the Equal Rights mission and to the UAW — racism, segregation, discrimination and inequality in hiring, wages, education and housing.

Reuther brought supporters and provided office space at Solidarity House for Dr. King to organize the event. It was at the UAW’s Solidarity House, in fact, that Dr. King composed the first version of his,” I Have a Dream” speech, which he gave with Reuther at his side at Detroit’s Cobo Hall following the march.

Two months later, the pair were together again, leading some 250,000 people, this time in front of the nation’s eyes, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. This seminal event, known as March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, once again linked the two leaders and their causes.

It was here that Reverend King most fully articulated his “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he emphasized his faith that all men, someday, would be brothers. It was here too that Walter Reuther gave remarks from the podium. In his speech, Reuther urged that our nation must “… bridge the moral gap between American democracy’s noble promises and it’s ugly practices in the field of civil rights.” Following the event, President John F. Kennedy met with the two leaders to talk more on what could be done.

A spirit that will not be crushed

On the 25th anniversary of the UAW, King wrote a letter to Reuther, that included this passage:

“More than anyone else in America, you stand out as the shining symbol of democratic trade unionism. Through trials, efforts and your unswerving devotion to humanitarian causes, you have made life more meaningful for millions of working people. Through moments of difficulty and strong obstacles, you have stood firm for what you believe, knowing that in the long run ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ … One day all of America will be proud of your achievements and will record your work as one of the glowing epics of our heritage.”

Not long after writing that, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered for his life’s work of improving the lives of people oppressed for no more than the color of their skins. Fair Housing was passed in the wake of his assassination. Two years later, UAW President, Walter Reuther, was killed along with his wife, May, in a plane crash. His life’s work was to give voice to working people.

That struggle continues today. We still fight for voting rights and to protect the Voting Rights Act; we still struggle to protect and maintain a livable wage, we still struggle against Right-to-Work.

Today is a reminder of how hard these two friends fought and how very much they won for the generations that have come after them.

I think both brothers — brothers are what Dr. King envisioned we would all be to one another; and brother and sister are exactly what we as union members call each other. Dr. King would have been pleased to have heard that.

We continue their fight and will work in this 2020 election year as tirelessly as these two noble friends did throughout their lives to stand strong for justice.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Truly this is a reminder of the relationship of two friends, two great leaders, and most importantly about the challenges that we still face each day.

President, UAW

Ray Curry was elected President of the UAW on June 28, 2021 by the International Executive Board upon the retirement of UAW President Rory L. Gamble. Curry officially assumed the office of president on July 1, 2021 and will serve out the remainder of the term until June 2022. Elected UAW Secretary-Treasurer at the 37th Constitutional Convention in June 2018, Curry was instrumental in implementation of broad financial ethics reforms and oversight as part of the UAW’s Ethics Reforms Initiative.

Curry was elected Director of UAW Region 8 in June 2014 at the 36th UAW Constitutional Convention in Detroit after having served four years as the region’s assistant director.

As Region 8 director, Curry was instrumental in securing new labor agreements with various parts suppliers. In July 2015, under his leadership, the region successfully organized the first gaming bargaining unit of Region 8 as part of a coalition of four other unions to represent the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, Maryland. In October 2017, the combined coalition reached its first individual collective bargaining agreements. UAW Local 17 represents the table dealers. Under Curry’s leadership, the region also won an election for representation at MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, in June 2018, bringing 1,250 new members into the union.

A North Carolina native and military veteran, Curry served three years on active duty in the U.S. Army and five years in the U.S. Army Reserve.

He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration / Finance. He holds a Master of Business Administration, MBA, degree from the University of Alabama.

Curry joined the UAW in July 1992, when he was hired as a truck assembler at Freightliner Trucks in Mount Holly, North Carolina, (now Daimler Trucks, NA) and later became a quality assurance inspector. He remained in that position until 2004. He served on the local’s civil rights committee and as a delegate for the area A. Philip Randolph Chapter. From 1998 to 2004, UAW Local 5285 members elected him to serve in numerous leadership positions, including as UAW Constitutional Convention delegate, chairman of the trustees, financial secretary-treasurer and alternate committeeperson. He also served as chairman of the UAW North Carolina State Political Action Committee, executive board vice president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO and as a UAW member organizer on the 2003 and 2004 Freightliner organizing drives in Cleveland, Gastonia and High Point, North Carolina.

In October 2004, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger appointed him as an International representative assigned to Region 8. His assignment as a servicing representative included aerospace, automotive (Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors facilities), heavy truck, and numerous automotive supplier locations in Alabama and Tennessee. He was responsible for collective bargaining, arbitration, organizing, political action and other bargaining-unit assignments. In June 2010, he was appointed Region 8 assistant director by then–Region 8 Director Gary Casteel.

Curry was elected as a 2012 Democratic National Convention alternate delegate on behalf of the state of Tennessee and later became a full voting delegate at the convention.

He is the 2017 recipient of the A. Philip Randolph Leon Lynch Lifetime Achievement Award, 2017 recipient of the Tennessee State AFL-CIO Presidential Award, the 2018 PR Latta Rank and File Award from the North Carolina AFL-CIO, as well as the 2019 National Newspaper Press Association’s National Leadership Award.

A longtime grassroots activist, Curry is a member of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, a Silver Life member of the NAACP, and member of the national NAACP Board of Directors. He is also an active member of numerous community and social organizations including but not limited to the Michigan State Democratic Party, American Legion Post 177 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Unique Masonic Lodge #85, Charlotte Consistory #35, and Rameses Temple #51 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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