Remembering Walter Reuther.
Fifty years ago, legendary president of the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW) Walter P. Reuther died in a plane crash near Pellston, Michigan, on May 9, 1970. Reuther’s funeral in Detroit was a massive event, attended by thousands of people, including UAW members, American labor leaders, officials from nations around the world, U.S. congressmen and senators and many other dignitaries.
In Metro Detroit today, the name of Walter Reuther refers to an expressway in the northern suburbs, an academic library at Wayne State University and a middle school in Rochester. There are schools named after Reuther in Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Most people will not, however, know anything about the man behind the name, or that Reuther was a friend to Detroit Jews.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Reuther was the most prominent labor leader in America and an influential statesman. Reuther led the UAW when it boasted 1.5 million members, during an era when nearly four of every 10 American workers belonged to a union.
Under his leadership, UAW members became the elite of the world’s industrial workers, and the union was a powerful force for social justice, civil rights and the fight against anti-Semitism. Moreover, unlike the recent history of the UAW, during the Reuther era, there was never the slightest hint of scandal among the top officials of the UAW. Reuther himself was known to be incorruptible.
Reuther is cited on 196 pages in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. He was first mentioned in 1937, just as he was beginning his career in the UAW. By this time, Reuther had married a Jewish Detroiter, May Wolf, who was a teacher and labor activist in her own right (May died in the plane crash with Walter).
As president, Reuther appointed many Jews to important positions within the UAW. For example, one of his closest advisors and friends was Vice President Irving Bluestone. For another, Reuther asked the esteemed Shaarey Zedek Rabbi Morris Addler to head the UAW Public Review Board, which is a nonpartisan, independent citizen organization that serves as a mediator for disputes between UAW members and their administrators. In Metro Detroit, Reuther was often a guest speaker at local Jewish organizations, such as the Workman’s Circle, the Jewish Federation and various synagogues.
Reuther was also a staunch supporter of Israel and provided substantial support for Histadrut and the Jewish National Fund, to name only two initiatives. As reported in the Sept. 2, 1955, issue of the JN, he visited Israel in 1955. When asked for comment upon his arrival, Reuther immediately spoke to Israel’s right to defend itself: “The people of Israel have a right and a moral obligation to stand up and fight for it [the nation].”
In 1968, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel honored Reuther with the Weizmann Award in the Sciences and Humanities and established the Walter P. Reuther Chair of Research in the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in his honor. The Chair still exists today.
By his death, Walter Reuther was a famous American. The next time you drive on the Reuther Expressway, you’ll know why it bears his name.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.