Walter Reuther in Black and White:
A Rejoinder to Herbert Hill

Nelson Lichtenstein

[from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 2 (new series), whole no. 26, Winter 1999]

Editors' note: Herbert Hill's critical essay-review of Nelson Lichtenstein's biography of Walter Reuther, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor appeared in the last issue of NEW POLITICS Volume VII, No.1. Below is Nelson Lichtenstein's rejoinder followed by Herbert Hill's rebuttal. We invite further comment.

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN teaches history at the University of Virginia. He was co-chair of the 1996 Columbia University "Teach-in with the Labor Movement," and he is a founding member of "Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice."


IN HIS ASSAULT, "Lichtenstein's Fictions: Meany, Reuther and the 1964 Civil Rights Act," Herbert Hill has launched an attack upon my biography of Walter Reuther -- and upon me -- that will further damage his reputation as a legal scholar and civil rights historian. This is not because Hill criticizes Reuther and Meany on their civil rights record and I defend them. As I shall demonstrate below, my biography represents a sustained critique of Reutherite politics and practice. Rather, Herbert Hill's failure to grasp the actual argument offered by my Reuther biography is so blind, willful, and self-contradictory, that it brings into question the reliability of his historical work and the validity of his judgments on a whole range of parallel issues.

Herbert Hill played an historic and heroic part in the African-American struggle for liberation. His place in the annals of that movement is secure. But Herbert Hill does not own that history or the part he played in it. Furthermore, his effort to reduce the trade unions, both past and present, to little more than a white job trust does a disservice both to the history of America's working class movement and to the possibility of a genuinely progressive trade union revival. Herbert Hill's world is one of Manichean polarities, but reality was far more dialectical.1

The Hill attack has two misshapen themes. First he devotes at least two-thirds of the space in his essay to the refutation of a single paragraph in my Reuther biography: a few sentences which assert the important role played by the AFL-CIO and the UAW in the addition of a fair employment practices title to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Hill argues that their support was both self-serving and "limited" in the sense that the unions supported Title VII only to the extent that it was ineffective when it came to a reform of actual union racial practice. And he offers paragraph after paragraph demonstrating the way in which the AFL-CIO and the UAW fought effective enforcement of Title VII during the 1960s and 1970s. Although Hill's analysis is hardly perfect -- his legislative history of Title VII ignores the role played by the conservatives in shaping the Title -- I will demonstrate how it actually bolsters the larger argument made in my Reuther biography.

But Hill's second theme is both more personal, more political, and more immediately accessible to the readership of New Politics and others on the American left. He charges me with a whitewash of Walter Reuther because I have an "ideological depict labor unions as a progressive social force whatever the facts. In order to do this Lichtenstein has to engage in evasions, half-truths, omissions and misleading 'explanations' for labor's record on racial issues."2

Over the entire sweep of the 20th century, trade unions have been, generally speaking, a progressive force in American life and social policy. Walter Reuther was a complex figure whose self-confident liberalism and soaring rhetoric, even in the last years of his life, had much to commend it. But such a viewpoint does not constitute an endorsement of labor's program and practice at any and all times. Indeed, the basic thrust of the Reuther biography is one of devolution, missed opportunities, and growing structural sclerosis. And as this rejoinder will demonstrate, contra Hill's misplaced invective, my account of Reuther's failures on the racial front, both inside the UAW and out, constitutes one of the prime indictments of his leadership in an era when those unions which were heir to the CIO legacy made their peace with the status quo.

To this end, I'm happy to catalogue Hill's charges because the actual text of my biography so easily and extensively refutes them. Thus Hill argues that while I "acknowledge" discrimination in the UAW, my biography does not, "with but two exceptions, discuss the response of the Reuther leadership to racist practices by local unions although they were widespread." Instead, "Lichtenstein works from the exception and ignores the pattern."3

Hill also charges that I "remind the reader with some frequency of Reuther's financial support for civil rights causes as proof of his devotion to the movement."4 And driving in this presumptive nail, Hill quotes with approval historian George Lipsitz who writes in Rainbow at Midnight, his well-received history of mid-century American labor:

I know that defenders of the AFL-CIO will point to their support for civil rights legislation as proof that they fought for social justice rather than for social peace. But when one looks closely at their role in the civil rights movement a different picture emerges. Walter Reuther paid for the sound system for the 1963 March on Washington, but then used his influence to censor John Lewis's speech. Social democrats like Joseph Rauh and Allard Lowenstein channeled civil rights workers within the Democratic party, urging acceptance of the decision to seat the segregationist Mississippi delegation at the 1964 convention instead of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic party. In these instances and others, union leaders tried to do with the civil rights movement what they had done with the labor insurgencies of the thirties and forties -- take power away from the rank and file and delegate power to leaders making deals with corporations and political parties. In both cases, in my judgement, the rank and file lost far more than it gained.5

And now for the Hill hammer: "Lichtenstein does not share Lipsitz's view. On the contrary, he repeatedly emphasizes labor union financial support for civil rights activities without understanding its consequences. It is evident that a major ideological purpose of Lichtenstein's book is to 'prove,' that despite some limitations, on the whole, organized labor fulfilled its innate socially progressive role in the struggle for racial justice."6 And a bit later, "Lichtenstein has not written a critical study of Reuther whom he perceives as a working-class visionary struggling mightily against powerful corporations."7

So we have the indictment. Now for the defense. My biography of Walter Reuther traces the career of a one-time socialist as he battles his way to a quarter-century leadership of the nation's most powerful and politicized trade union. His career is a tragedy because it both paralleled and advanced the larger devolution of the American labor movement, from insurgency and radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, to near-establishment status in the 1960s. I don't subscribe to a great man theory of history, which is why I frequently declare Reuther a "prisoner of the institutions he did so much to construct." Hill thinks this formulation "impoverished," itself constituting an apologia, but I hope readers of New Politics are sophisticated enough to recognize that if you are on the left, the demonization of your opponents is not the highest or most useful form of political analysis. Reuther was an opportunist, but not always in the worst sense of that term. He saw himself, at least subjectively, as one who challenged the status quo, but he nevertheless accommodated, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, to the increasingly conservative institutional and social pressures that confronted the union movement.

From the world of big-time collective bargaining, to the UAW alliance with the Democratic Party, to the structures of subordination and discrimination that ordered the racial hierarchy in all UAW-organized factories, Reuther presided over and therefore took ultimate responsibility for a regime that had drifted ever farther from its labor-liberal ideals. Harvey Swados summed it up quite well in the early 1960s, "One cannot complain, as one might with almost any other union, of an absence of intellect, or of a lack of application of that intellect to the problems of our age. What one can say, I think with justification, is that the UAW leadership no longer takes its own demands seriously."8 This view is offered to argue that a mass movement from below was required to break this social and economic stalemate. And when such movements did emerge, in the 1960s, Reuther sought either to block or co-opt them for his own political purposes.

But on to the text. My biography of Reuther consists of 19 chapters and an epilogue. I discuss the racial politics and practices of the UAW in a number of places, but largely in chapters 10, 17 and 19 which discuss Walter Reuther and his union during World War II, at the height of the civil rights movement, and during the era of the 1967 race riot and the eruption of late 1960s black militancy, most notably the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. Herbert Hill has chosen to focus only upon a small portion of that narrative, largely that which appears in the chapter covering Reuther, the UAW, and racial politics during the late 1950s and 1960s. In the following passages I quote at length the actual text of the Reuther biography because some sense of the narrative flow is necessary for a reader to understand how wildly off-base is the thrust of Hill's critique. To the particular charge that my biography glosses over the systematic character of auto industry racism, or of UAW complicity therein, I offer the following:

If Reuther's links to the Democratic Party had been the only constraint upon his activism, these might well have been strained as the (civil rights) movement reached flood tide. But Reuther's growing identification with both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had its reflection, if not its actual origins, inside the UAW itself where he found the growth of a rights-conscious militancy an ideological and organizational challenge of the first order. In the early 1940s the rise of a black insurgency within the automobile and agricultural implement factories had been organically linked to the growth of industrial unionism itself. A generation later, when a second wave of racial militancy surged forward, it crashed with full force against a shop floor regime and a union structure of far greater rigidity. This was a contradiction which Reuther could never resolve and never escape.

At the end of the 1950s racial structures based on the subordination of African-American workers had a three-fold character within the automobile industry. First, there was still outright segregation, maintained by employers and sustained by local unionists, in many UAW-organized factories in the South. In the decade after World War II this problem had actually become more prominent as the decentralization of Big Three auto production out of the urban North and the organization of new facilities, especially those of the aircraft and agricultural implement industries, put upwards of ten percent of all UAW membership South of the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon Line.

In the Atlanta, Dallas, Memphis and Norfolk automotive assembly plants the prewar tradition barring blacks from all but janitorial work remained largely intact. "When we moved into the South," one of GM's plant managers in Atlanta explained in 1957, "we agreed to abide by local custom and not hire Negroes for production work. This is no time for social reforming...and we're not about to try it." Reuther was personally acquainted with the virulent racism of the Georgia workers. In 1945 he had flown to Atlanta to demand that Fisher Body Local 34 admit black sweepers to membership and upgrade them to production jobs. At a packed meeting that lasted five hours, Reuther pulled out all the stops, arguing for solidarity against the company and threatening the local with an administratorship if they failed to follow UAW policy. Soon 120 black sweepers were formally enrolled in the local, but none won production jobs. Indeed, the GM Atlanta locals remained a center of segregationist agitation, especially after the Brown decision, when the autoworker Elston Edwards, an Imperial Wizard of the Georgia KKK, recruited actively among his workmates.9

Let's pause here for a moment to note how Herbert Hill distorts the above incident. He writes of the situation in Local 34, "What Lichtenstein fails to mention is that 30 years later, with but one exception, blacks employed in this plant were still janitors, locked in a labor classification in the union contract that limited them to work only as janitors, with no possibility of promotion into jobs reserved exclusively for whites. Furthermore, this was the pattern in many UAW organized plants in the South and border states."10 Aside from the fact that I chose not to comment on the state of affairs in the year 1975, half a decade after Reuther's death, Hill's charge is willfully blind to the plain meaning of the words in this paragraph: In Atlanta, like Memphis, Norfolk, and Dallas, white unionists defended the segregation of African-Americans, keeping them confined to the janitorial work.

My text continues:

Memphis proved an equally intransigent bastion of Herrenvolk militancy. Management at International Harvester hired hundreds of African-Americans to help staff its new agricultural equipment factory in the late 1940s. But trench warfare immediately broke out between whites and blacks on the shop floor. As in so many factories, mills and shipyards, not all confined to the Deep South by any means, Harvester's white workers linked a militant job control impulse with a racialist construction of the factory hierarchy. A close-knit fraternity of whiteness, skill and union power kept Harvester Local 988 a storm center of segregationist conflict. In the late 1950s Local 988 thumbed its nose at Solidarity House when it constructed a new union hall complete with segregated rest rooms and water fountains. 'We belong to Reuther's union but we don't believe in Reuther's integration,' announced one militant welder at a stormy meeting held between UAW officers and the Local 988 whites. 'When the showdown comes we'll take segregation and leave you guys up in Detroit.'

In fact, Solidarity House seemed without the will to intervene. As late as 1957 Reuther still maintained that 'except for isolated instances' discrimination in the matter of promotions and transfers has been eliminated. 'The most glaring instance of continued discriminatory practices is discrimination by management at the hiring gate, a process over which, in most instances we have no direct control.' Clearly, this was not the whole story in the South, but Pat Greathouse, the UAW vice-president in charge of the Agriculture Implement Department, was himself from downstate Illinois. He had spent much of the previous decade fighting the FE Communists, whose championship of African-American demands at Harvester made most Reutherites look twice before they leaped into the racial fray. The leader of the embattled Harvester blacks, George Holloway, found Reuther's high profile agitation against the Dixiecrats a genuine inspiration, but by 1959 he pleaded with Detroit that his workers 'felt that the UAW-CIO executive board has thrown us to the wolves and forgot their promises to correct his evil situation.'

Reuther and his executive board eventually moved against such blatant segregation in the southern locals, but a second racial problem, the upgrading of black workers into the skilled trades, proved even more difficult to resolve. During World War II Northern blacks had broken through the caste lines that kept them confined to foundry and janitorial work, but upward mobility halted in the 1950s as job opportunities contracted and the union pushed for higher apprenticeship standards. By the end of the decade the black proportion of the skilled trades stood at minuscule levels, 2% or less, which was often below that of even the notoriously exclusionary building trades. Black staffers often called the skilled trades 'the deep South' of the UAW. But Reuther was not about to take aggressive action here. The skilled trades had begun a long-simmering 'revolt' against industrial-style unionism so Reuther hesitated to further roil the waters with an assault upon the racial nepotism of this strategically placed section of the union.

Finally, black production workers in the late 1950s and early 1960s confronted an industrial relations structure of authority that seemed increasingly intolerable. The auto industry as a whole was about 13% black in the early 1960s, in Michigan upwards of 20%. And on the semi-skilled Detroit production lines the proportion reached even higher. At Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue and Dodge Main facilities and in the Rouge assembly building about half of all production workers were non-white. Not unexpectedly, as black workers became more numerous and more concentrated at the point of production itself, they came to see shop floor relationships embedded in the Treaty of Detroit in specifically racial terms. Thus Paragraph 63 of the UAW-GM contact, which gave foremen so much discretion in the transfer and upgrade of production workers, took on an ugly racial coloration when implemented by white supervisors still unacculturated to a multiracial workforce. Reuther had spent the better part of a decade in an unsuccessful effort to reform Paragraph 63, but few black workers had any sense of this difficult pre-history. As the rights consciousness of the 1960s moved from the lunch counters of North Carolina to the production lines of Detroit, African-American workers became sharply conscious of the oppressive and hierarchical character of the factory regime. And they soon blamed Reuther -- or at least their regional director -- for not doing more about it.

The UAW's Fair Employment Practices Department (FEPD) proved incapable of resolving these explosive pressures. It was largely 'ceremonial and symbolic,' in the words of F. Ray Marshall, an industrial relations expert friendly to the UAW. William Oliver, Reuther's 1946 choice as FEPD co-director, had been a foundryman from Ford's Highland Park factory. But unlike George Crockett, his predecessor in the job, or the many radical blacks who came out of the Rouge, Oliver had no large reservoir of political support in the UAW, nor did he attempt to build a constituency during the quarter century he directed te department. Under his tenure the FEPD had a dual role: it represented the UAW to the national civil rights community, to the NAACP, the Urban League and the more liberal federal agencies and congressmen; and it served to route, usually back to the regional directors, discrimination complaints as they percolated up from the African-American membership and the occasional UAW local. Oliver's FEPD kept tabs on African-American sentiment within the UAW but played no mobilizing role throughout the formative years of the civil rights revolution. 'We are a fire station,' admitted Sheldon Tappes, who periodically served in the department under Oliver, 'and when the bell rings we run to put out the fire.'11


THIS CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE UAW'S OWN ANTI-DISCRIMINATION SET-UP is particularly important because Herbert Hill seems to think that my biography is oblivious to the relative ineffectiveness of the union's FEPD. Indeed, Hill claims that, after interviewing him in Madison and Washington, exchanging letters, and xeroxing scores of pages from his own files, Lichtenstein "knew that in order to make his rationalizations and excuses for Reuther's record on race seem credible, it was necessary to omit much relevant material."12

But I took much of my line, especially on the internal UAW FEPD set-up from Hill himself, and I cite, among many other sources, both his 1967 interviews with Sheldon Tappes and an interview I conducted with Hill on June 19, 1987.

However, Herbert Hill is largely correct in his charge that my book uses relatively little material from his files. I chose to minimize my reliance on documents and letters provided by Hill, and the interviews I conducted with him, for the following three reasons. First, much material I copied out of his personal collection was already in the public domain (congressional testimony, letters and records on deposit at Wayne State's Reuther Library, etc.), and it is standard academic practice to reference them in this more accessible format. Second, as every scholar knows, interviews conducted close to the events in question are almost always more reliable than those recorded a score or more years later: thus I relied as much as possible on the publicly available interviews on deposit at Wayne State and the Meany archives wherever possible, including several excellent ones conducted by Hill himself in the late 1960s.

And third, I chose to avoid reliance on Herbert Hill's personally-held material, and upon the interviews I had conducted with him, because of his increasingly eccentric and self-serving reputation among those scholars who were also knowledgeable about mid-century trade unionism and its relationship to the NAACP and the civil rights struggle. Few doubted that Hill's analysis of the way that white union leaders sought to contain and deflect black activism was a valuable one. But I had a growing impression that Herbert Hill takes a proprietary and legalistic approach to much of this history; as readers of his work are quite aware, Hill casts his account as a lawyer's brief rather than as a well-integrated social and political narrative. So for example I quote above F. Ray Marshall, rather than Herbert Hill, on the "ceremonial and symbolic" character of the UAW's FEPD department.

One example of why I find Herbert Hill a less than reliable guide actually arises out of one of his few legitimate criticisms of my use of something he wrote. He's right: there is no "blistering" attack on racial discrimination within the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union in Hill's 1961 NAACP report, "Racism Within Organized Labor." Indeed, Hill compliments hat union for integrating its Atlanta units. But in his New Politics attack, as well as in an earlier Reviews in American History blast, Hill just leaves it there, scoring a point against my sloppy citation. But this makes him the author of a larger distortion, because Hill made much of his reputation, in the early 1960s, as quite the "blistering" critic of the ILGWU, thus generating a high level of tension between that once liberal wing of organized labor and the NAACP.13


HERBERT HILL'S EFFORT TO TURN ME INTO AN APOLOGIST for Reuther's racial regime is nothing more than a hair-splitting insult. The UAW leader's complicity with the auto industry's system of racially-coded employment came under attack, within the UAW itself, when the Trade Union Leadership Council burst on the scene late in the 1950s. Led by articulate blacks like Horace Sheffield and Willouby Abner, TULC successfully challenged Reuther's claim to speak as a principled advocate of black auto workers. Indeed, I spend several pages detailing the politics of this caucus within the UAW because the rise of the TULC and other black insurgencies, combined with their eventual containment by the Reutherite bureaucracy, explains more than any other phenomenon the racial politics at work within the UAW during the 1960s. Once you know why Reuther fought TULC -- and later the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement -- a reader does not have to spend much time detailing the extent to which the top leadership of the UAW did not seek a vigorous enforcement of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Had Sheffield or Abner won a seat on the UAW executive board they would have inserted into the highest union councils the views and power of an independent insurgency within the UAW, and in the process challenged the politico-legal posture of Reuther and his caucus. This would have forced the UAW to confront the covert racists and stand-pat ethnic machine politicians which had become a mainstay of so much of the Reutherite UAW.

Herbert Hill knows all this very well indeed, but he somehow believes that if I do not catalogue, after 1965, each and every discrimination case that worked its way up through the EEOC and the courts, then my biography stands as an apologia for Mr. Reuther's leadership. He is particularly vexed by my assertion that after 1959 "...the UAW began a more vigorous effort to desegregate southern and border-state UAW organized factories and upgrade black workers out of janitorial ranks." But Hill fails to quote those lines in my book which make it clear that this initiative comes as part of the Reutherite effort to contain the TULC challenge. Thus the UAW did finally move against overt segregation in the Memphis Harvester local and it did seek, unsuccessfully, to insert anti-discrimination clauses into the major auto contracts. And later in the decade the UAW bargained for inverse seniority clauses, which would have kept more minority workers on the job during recessionary layoffs. Too little? Of course, but it would be foolish to argue, as Hill does, that Reuther and his top lieutenants made no accommodation to the civil rights pressures that were boiling up from below during the 1960s.

Now, let's turn back to George Lipsitz's indictment of America's union leadership during the heyday of the civil rights era. It's largely true. Although you would hardly know it from Hill's assault, my biography offers up an even more detailed discussion of how and why Reuther both supported the 1963 March on Washington, and why he also sought to contain its politics and turn them toward the agenda advanced by the Kennedy Administration. He did win a place at the Lincoln Memorial podium, because the UAW, unlike Meany's AFL-CIO, actually endorsed and financially supported the big march. But my biography makes crystal clear that this Reutherite support came with a large political and organizational price tag, which the most advanced guard of the civil rights movement had to pay, both at the 1963 march, and then at the Atlantic City convention of the Democratic Party a year later.

Since Hill thinks my biography is tone deaf to all this I offer the following from my book in rebuttal:

Reuther ... was organized labor's most vigorous and powerful champion of the civil rights insurgency, and for this he momentarily won a well-deserved place within the high councils of movement decision making. But throughout these crucial months of 1963 and 1964, Reuther used his influence to serve that of the President within these councils. He saw no contradiction, for the UAW President had become convinced that the corridors of power were now open to labor-liberals for the first time in almost a quarter century; a great realignment in American politics seemed in the offing. Reuther had been at the margins of power for so long that he took even Kennedy's limited accommodation as signifying an intimate senses again the powerful seduction to which Reuther had succumbed. Though he complained of Kennedy timidity, Reuther gave his Administration, and that of his successor, the kind of political trust which was certain to be broken.

Beginning in late June the Kennedys worked through Reuther, as well as the white philanthropist, Stephen Currier, to make certain that the thrust of the March and that of the Administration ran along parallel paths. To step up the work of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and move its operations from New York to Washington, Reuther funded two additional staffers and provided the office space at IUD headquarters. With strong support from Roy Wilkins, Reuther also proved instrumental in giving his 'Coalition of Conscience,' a broader leadership by encouraging Randolph to add the Protestant notable Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, the Jewish leader Rabbi Joachim Prinz and the Catholic layman Matthew Ahmann to the 'Big Six' civil rights leaders (King, Wilkins, Randolph and SNCC's John Lewis, the Urban League's Whitney Young and CORE's James Farmer) who composed the March on Washington steering committee. This restructuring into a 'Big Ten,' including Reuther, diluted the social democratic content of the March on Washington, shifting it toward an exclusive endorsement of the Administration's rather limited civil rights bill, which at this stage did not even contain an FEPC provision. Randolph and Rustin had seen a full employment economy as central to the well-being of black America, but this demand now evaporated, as did the urgent necessity for a two dollar minimum wage, which white religious leaders vetoed.

News of the impending march brought to the surface the atavistic fears of a deeply racist society. Washington was still a Southern city and even among partisans of the Kennedy civil rights bill, few imagined that thousands of blacks could pour into town without some outbreak of violence, drunkenness or racial conflict... To monitor the situation, Robert Kennedy set up a Justice Department planning group which came to play an increasingly large role in the management of the march itself. The Attorney General was particularly interested in making sure the gathering was peaceful and orderly, keeping the rhetoric within bounds and getting the focus of the demonstration turned from the Capitol to some other part of the city. The President and his brother also wanted to make sure that when the gathering did take place it would be of impressive size and with noticeable white participation.

Reuther and Jack Conway, who represented the UAW President with both the Justice Department and the march organizers, played key roles in moving the demonstration in this direction. In several New York planning sessions for the march, Conway argued that only a large and unobstructed area away from the Capitol could comfortably contain the 200,000 now expected for the rally. Downplaying the political significance of the switch, Conway convinced Randolph and other organizers that the Lincoln Memorial would work best for such a large turnout: of course, Reuther's IUD would foot the $16,600 bill for the large and expensive sound system necessary to reach an audience now awkwardly divided by the monument's reflecting pool. That was the 'clincher' remembered Conway.

By late August the UAW had shifted a sizable proportion of its entire staff to Washington in support of the march...But the night before the ceremonies Reuther faced one last threat to his conception of the civil rights coalition essential for a successful March on Washington. Jack Conway had found a freshly mimeographed copy of SNCC Chairman John Lewis' speech for the Lincoln Memorial rally.

Justice Department aides got their copy at almost the same moment and passed on the text to Robert Kennedy and his assistants. All were alarmed. The speech said that SNCC could not support the Kennedy civil rights bill because it was 'too little and too late.' 'We are now involved in a serious revolution,' read the text, which was the joint effort of several SNCC staffers, some fresh from the frustration and brutality of southwest Georgia. Lewis' rhetoric would soon become the common coin of the New Left, but in 1963 his language was certain to outrage many of the more moderate civil rights supporters the Kennedys and Reuther had been so anxious to involve in the leadership of the march. 'This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation' the text declared, 'We will take matters into our own hands...If any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.' And Lewis vowed a transformation of the South: 'We will march through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own 'scorched earth' policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground -- nonviolently.'

'Here was the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee calling for open revolution,' Reuther told his executive board a month later. 'That Negroes could not get redress of their grievances within the framework of the legal structure...It was really something.' Appraised of the contents of Lewis' speech by Robert Kennedy, several Catholic notables threatened to issue a denunciation and pull out. Patrick Cardinal O'Boyle, the prelate of Washington, declared he would not offer the invocation or share the same platform with Lewis.

Working in tandem with the Justice Department, Reuther turned his considerable powers of persuasion and organization into getting the speech modified and the leadership coalition reunified. A late night meeting with Lewis and others in SNCC proved inconclusive, so the dispute continued on the morning of the march. It was still unresolved when Reuther, King, Randolph and other march leaders assembled at the Lincoln Memorial. Reuther laid out the issues as if he were at a union caucus:

'Look. We have got a decision to make real quick, and there is no use debating it because we haven't got time...If John Lewis feels strongly that he wants to make this speech, he can go some place else and make it, but he has no right to make it here because if he tries to make it he destroys the integrity of our coalition and he drives people out of the coalition who agree to the principles and he stays in when he doesn't agree This is just immoral and he has no right to do it, and I demand a vote right now because I have got to call the Archbishop.'

As Lewis and his comrades retyped their speech, Reuther called O'Boyle's hotel room and reached an agreement with the prelate that if the Protestant churchman, Eugene Carson Blake, were given a veto over the revised draft, then the Catholics would again participate. The deal struck, O'Boyle and his contingent were soon spirited to the Memorial by a secret service detail and opened the ceremonies as scheduled. Lewis delivered his revised speech and was immediately followed by Reuther who thought he might have to 'pick up the pieces in case it became necessary.'

At the podium Reuther first offered a well-worn but still vital query: 'If we can have full employment and full production for the negative ends of war, then why can't we have a job for every American in the pursuit of peace?' He cautioned the movement to 'rational and responsible action,' but his seven-minute speech also contained several of the day's most radical and pointed phrases. He denounced the nation's 'pious platitudes' and 'high octane hypocrisy;' after which he put a sharp barb in Kennedy liberalism itself: 'We cannot defend freedom in Berlin so long as we deny freedom in Birmingham!'...

It was a good speech, but two decades of such talk had long since devalued Reuther's brand of social democratic rhetoric. Indeed, the summer of 1963 may well be taken as the moment when the discourse of American liberalism shifted decisively out of the New Deal-Fair Deal-laborite orbit and into a world in which the racial divide colored all politics. When March leaders met in the White House cabinet room at 5:00 p.m that day, Martin Luther King knew he had given the speech of a lifetime, but one which might well evoke a large measure of jealousy from other civil rights leaders. So he deflected a Presidential compliment for his "I Have a Dream" oration by asking Kennedy if he had heard the excellent speech of Walter Reuther. 'Oh, I've heard him plenty of times,' replied Kennedy. Both President and nation had turned their ears to another messenger and another message.14

And as for Reuther's infamous role at the 1964 Democratic convention and in the closely linked and equally important set of General Motors negotiations and strikes that immediately followed, go read my book. If Herbert Hill believes that one reader in a hundred (Ron Radosh is undoubtedly within that minority) will come away from these accounts of Reutherite betrayal and behind-the-scenes horse trading with an elevated opinion of the UAW leader, then they have a problem in reading comprehension. Hill certainly has that problem, because he seems to think that when my account records how Reuther tried to strong-arm Martin Luther King by reminding him "of how much money the UAW had provided his organization," I am somehow endorsing Reuther's checkbook liberalism.15


LET'S NOW RETURN TO THE FIRST THEME UPON WHICH Herbert Hill launches his attack on my biography of Walter Reuther. Hill's venom toward me rests on a single sentence from my book. "The trade union movement, both the AFL-CIO and the UAW, was primarily responsible for the addition of FEPC, now rechristened the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), to the original Kennedy bill."16 Hill calls this a "myth that is frequently repeated by those who ignore the role of the civil rights movement and of the black leadership" in this history. Hill goes on to assert that "An examination of the legislative history of Title VII and the conflicts that developed during the struggle for the 1972 amendments to the statute reveals a history of ambivalence, resistance and finally opposition to Title VII by organized labor, a history very different from Lichtenstein's version."17 Given such an attack, a reader of Hill's essay might reasonably come to the conclusion that my biography of Walter Reuther includes a rather extensive discussion of the origins, enactment, administration, and litigation involving Title VII. But in fact all of Hill's scholarly bluster is directed at some other target, because this Reuther biography is simply silent on labor's post 1964 role in the legal and administrative evolution of Title VII's history.18

Hill's critique is disorganized, disjointed, and ahistorical, but I've been able to separate out three elements. The first questions the extent to which the trade unions were in fact responsible for the inclusion of Title VII (FEPC) in the 1964 civil rights bill itself. The second argues that the union understanding of Title VII's meaning in 1964 itself subverted their claims to racial liberalism. And the third element consists of a long post hoc argument tracing the AFL-CIO's growing opposition to what we have come to know as "affirmative action," thus further questioning the validity of the Federation's original Title VII support.

I'll stand by my claim that the unions were "primarily" responsible for the actual inclusion of a FEPC title in the original 1964 civil rights bill. During many of the crucial bill drafting negotiations of 1963 the UAW's Joe Rauh and Jack Conway pounded away at Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, the Kennedy Administration point man on this issue. And as for the AFL-CIO, Richard Bolling, who was the FEPC whip in the House, understood both the self-serving aspects of George Meany's Title VII politics and the weight of the labor federation in pushing the bill forward. As he later told Meany's biographer, "We had a hell of a time with both of the Kennedys, and with Nick Katzenbach. Katzenbach finally got the message, that the AFL-CIO had to have the umbrella of the law. We never would have passed the Civil Rights Act without labor. They had the muscle: the other civil rights groups did not."19


THE MEANING OF TITLE VII, AS IT WAS UNDERSTOOD IN 1963 and 1964, has been subject to much debate, and this is the second element in Hill's long discussion of the 1964 law. I don't even touch upon this complex question in my Reuther biography because I don't think Reuther's understanding of Title VII the central question in an evaluation of UAW racial politics in this era. The real issue, as I emphasize over and over again, is the distribution of power within the UAW itself and inside the factories where the union represented so many workers. Of course, Herbert Hill has devoted much of his adult life to Title VII litigation, but here's a case where his expert knowledge just distorts an understanding of the larger politics.

For example, in his discussion of Section 703 (h), which insulated established union seniority systems from EEOC review, Hill ignores the role played by conservatives and Dixiecrats in generating a liberal/labor interpretation of Title VII that would later become embarrassing. Led by Everett Dirksen and John Tower, GOP conservatives and Dixiecrats tried to throw a roadblock in front of the civil rights bill by arguing that Title VII would wreck union seniority arrangements, including those which preserved the racial privileges of so many white workers. For a brief and expedient season, the Bourbon South claimed for itself the championship of union seniority rights. To counter this gambit, spokesmen for organized labor, as well as key civil rights leaders, rushed forward to deny that existing seniority systems would be undermined or disturbed by passage of Title VII barring employment discrimination. This was the context in which Reuther's Industrial Union Department issued its "Legislative Alert" stating that Title VII "has nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of business firms or unions or with seniority systems."20

Although no evidence exists in any of the several published histories of Title VII, Hill claims that the AFL-CIO would not have backed the bill had not Section 703 (h) been included, i.e. only if "the law was limited to future discriminatory practices and only if it insulated established union seniority systems." But the AFL-CIO did not have to put such conditions in place because there was, in 1964, little in the way of a judicial or political tradition to support it. This is one reason that George Meany could so easily endorse the 1964 bill. He thought it would merely end the most blatant examples of segregation, especially in all-white Southern locals, thus saving the national AFL-CIO a lot of embarrassment. Indeed, in 1963 and 1964 few on the center-left understood how enormously important EEOC efforts to rectify the embedded, historically-rooted structures of racial discrimination would become. Even Hill admits this, writing that "Reuther no more understood the potential of Title VII than Meany did, and that neither anticipated how the law would develop once enacted." And neither did Roy Wilkins, Hubert Humphrey, Joe Rauh or any other racial liberal of that era.21


THE THIRD ELEMENT OF HILL'S CRITIQUE is a long, critical discussion of AFL-CIO opposition to the work of the EEOC in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Of this topic, Hill asserts that "Lichtenstein's treatment of this history is uninformed and misleading in many crucial respects."22 But Reuther had little or nothing to do with the formulation of the Federation's growing hostility to what we have come to call "affirmative action." He was George Meany's bitter enemy all through the 1960s. Indeed the UAW quit the AFL-CIO in 1968, and Reuther died in May 1970. I therefore found amusing the considerable energy Hill devotes to recounting the AFL-CIO's effort to weaken Title VII when it came up for amendment in 1972. His views may be right or wrong, but they are certainly ahistorical, since he uses the Meanyite racial politics of 1972 to justify an interpretation of Reuther's motives and mentality eight years before.

Such post hoc justifications aside, it occurred to me that perhaps Hill knew something that had not appeared in the UAW Proceedings of those years, i.e. that the UAW did in fact support AFL-CIO efforts to weaken Title VII or align itself with the Federation's particular legal strategy in matters regarding race, employment, and seniority. I'm far from an expert on this administrative/legal history of Title VII. Moreover the issue is endlessly complex: the building trades did not always agree with the Steelworkers, while the AFL-CIO itself changed its views over time.23 So I called up a number of scholars to ask -- in general -- if the UAW, either before Reuther's death or after, aligned itself with the posture adopted by the AFL-CIO, which is what Herbert Hill certainly implies in his essay. They answered in the negative, keeping in mind of course, that in the auto industry the UAW faced its own failures and dilemmas in transforming a factory job hierarchy that remained highly exclusionary. I spoke with William Gould, a UAW attorney in the 1960s, later chair of the NLRB, Michael Parrish, biographer of Joseph Rauh, John Bracey, an historian of the NAACP, and Hugh Graham, author of The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy.24

However, none of this gainsays the fact, as Hill does point out, that in the 1960s and 1970s the UAW was the subject of a growing number of complaints of racial discrimination, directed either to the union's own Fair Employment Practices Department or to the EEOC itself. Well naturally. The African-American liberation movement was reaching flood tide. But Hill seems to feel that if I do not retail such statistics or recount his version of the NAACP legal strategy, then I am somehow an apologist for Walter Reuther's regime. But my book makes quite clear the character of Reuther's reputation among African-American militants in the late 1960s. Consider the following passage:

By the difficult standards of 1969, neither Reuther nor his principal collaborators were racist, but with the UAW's structural incapacity to accommodate the new wave of shop activism, militancy quickly turned to cynicism. At the very moment Reuther sought to revitalize the labor movement and champion the insurgencies sweeping America, he faced the scorn of a newly politicized generation. 'Put Walter in a halter,' they chanted. Vainly did Reuther assert himself in a 'state of continuous revolt against the status quo...the Establishment,' but his widely reported appearances at each flash point of the civil rights battlefront had 'not fooled black workers,' charged the African-American Marxist Charles Denby. 'When they see him marching on a picket line in Charleston or Selma...they know that he hasn't been on a picket line with his own UAW workers for so many years he's forgotten what it's like.' This charge was factually inaccurate, but it contained a mythic truth that was devastating in New Left circles, both white and black.25


IF THIS EXCHANGE BETWEEN HERBERT HILL AND MYSELF is to be something more than an exercise in scholastic pedantry, then we are obligated to put our politics on the table. Despite Reuther's many failures, both moral and political, his legacy nevertheless retains much of value because we judge him by a standard that is altogether higher than that of virtually any other major trade union leader of his time. This is because Reuther, unlike George Meany or David J. MacDonald or Jimmy Hoffa, always aspired to make labor once again the core of a dynamic social movement. He saw the unions as a powerful lever with which to change the world. When he subverted that quest, in word or deed, we properly charged him with hypocrisy and opportunism. And the bitterness of that betrayal still lingers in the history of that era.

Today, a new set of unionists have come to the leadership of the AFL-CIO and some of that organization's most important affiliates. And their ambitions have once again raised the standard by which we judge their leadership and that of the entire union movement. Indeed, John Sweeney's most radical and successful initiative has been purely rhetorical: he has asserted that for the unions to survive, they must transform themselves to once again become the core of an expansive social movement. He is putting an official leadership stamp on a long-overdue, multiracial redefinition of how we conceptualize the American working class. This is enormously healthy, although Sweeney and Company will undoubtedly disappoint us in many particulars. He may fail utterly, but in the process the left now enjoys a far larger and more welcome space in which to project its ideas and initiatives. We should seize that opportunity.



  1. Readers of New Politics will remember Hill's caricature of the late Herbert Gutman and his history of interracial unionism in the United Mine Workers, first published in these pages. But Herbert Hill's one-dimensional thrust has been effectively answered by Daniel Letwin's brilliant new book, The Challenge of Interracial Unionism: Alabama Coal Miners, 1876-1921 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), which demonstrates the complex character of both the solidarity and the regional racial norms, as well as the enormous power of capital, in structuring coal mining unionism. See also Eric Arnesen, "Up from Exclusion: Black and White Workers, Race, and the State of Labor History," Reviews in American History, 26 (March 1988), 146-174. return

  2. Herbert Hill, "Lichtenstein's Fictions: Meany, Reuther and the 1964 Civil Rights Act," New Politics VII (Summer 1998), 83. return

  3. Ibid., 99. return

  4. Ibid., 100. return

  5. Ibid., 101 return

  6. Ibid., 101. return

  7. Ibid., 102. return

  8. Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 326. The University of Illinois Press has recently published the paperback edition under the title Walter Reuther: the Most Dangerous Man in Detroit. return

  9. Ibid.,372-73. return

  10. Hill, "Lichtenstein's Fictions," 99. return

  11. Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, 373-75. return

  12. Hill, "Lichtenstein's Fictions," 98-99. return

  13. See Hill's own account of NAACP-ILGWU tensions in "Black Workers, Organized Labor, and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act: Legislative History and Litigation Record," in Herbert Hill and James E. Jones, Jr., Race in America: the Struggle for Equality (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 291-305. return

  14. Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, 383-87. return

  15. Ibid., 394; Hill, "Lichtenstein's Fictions," 101. Hill's problem in reading comprehension sometimes descends into outright distortion of the text. Reuther was a member of the NAACP Board of Directors. In a footnote on page 100 of his essay Hill recounts the 1966 effort of some young NAACP leaders to challenge Reuther's reelection. He was among those high-profile figures who rarely or never attended a Board meeting. But Reuther was reelected. Hill quotes one sentence from my account of this incident: "Reuther felt entirely vindicated when his name came in at the very top of the NAACP ballot." And then Hill comments, "Lichtenstein is being disingenuous, as he knows that Reuther's reelection was virtually bought and paid for. Unlimited sums of money were spent on his reelection and a well-organized campaign using UAW staff was involved."

    But Hill needs a new pair of glasses because my text (pp. 411-12) is clear on the background to this incident:

    ...Reuther was not simply a white liberal incapable of standing up to the new militancy. When a group of 'young turks' on the NAACP's national board dropped Reuther's name from the organization's reelection slate late in 1966, Reuther fought back as if his very honor were at stake. Mobilizing the union's potent resources within the national community of NAACP loyalists, Reuther's black staff waged a vigorous, successful campaign for an 'independent slate' of Association veterans. Reuther felt entirely vindicated when his name came in at the very top of the NAACP ballot. return

  16. Hill, "Lichtenstein's Fictions," 83. return

  17. Ibid., 83. return

  18. Indeed, Herbert Hill's attack may be literally misplaced because he lifts at least a dozen paragraphs almost verbatim from a 1993 essay written well before the publication of my Reuther biography. See Herbert Hill, "Black Workers, Organized Labor, and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act: Legislative History and Litigation Record," in Herbert Hill and James E. Jones, Jr. Race in America: the Struggle for Equality. return

  19. Joseph Goulden, Meany: the Unchallenged Strong Man of American Labor (New York: Antheneum, 1972), 322; and see also Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 173-76. return

  20. Quoted in Hill, "Lichtenstein's Fictions," 87. return

  21. Ibid., 89. Evidence for such an AFL-CIO condition is absent in the work of Hugh Davis Graham, The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 139-41; and in Paul Moreno, From Direct Action to Affirmative Action: Fair Employment Law and Policy in America, 1933-72 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997), 222, who specifically rejects Hill's claim. return

  22. Hill, "Lichtenstein's Fictions," 94. return

  23. For a politically and economically incisive exploration of many of these issues, see the remarkable new book by Judith Stein, Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). return

  24. Perhaps I should have called Herbert Hill himself because he also provides evidence that the UAW took a different line than the AFL-CIO when it came to pushing for EEOC "cease and desist" power late in the 1960s. Hill cites a 1970 letter to Reuther from Joe Rauh, who still handled some civil rights issues for the UAW, to the effect that the AFL-CIO was backing away from the right of an aggrieved individual to bring suit against either management or the union. This was a "damn shame" because it would make passage of legislation strengthening EEOC more difficult. See Hill, "Black Workers, Organized Labor, and Title VII of the 1964," 318. return

  25. Lichtenstein, Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, 435. return

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