"The UAW and Martin Luther King Jr.: Shared Beliefs, Shared History"
Starting in the late 1950’s, UAW members joined Dr. King and many others in campaigns to end segregation and to expand civil rights throughout the country.
In 1961, then UAW President Walter Reuther invited Dr. King to speak at the UAW’s 25th Anniversary Dinner in Detroit. (You can listen to part of that speech here, but please note the audio file is copyrighted).
In 1963, King and other leaders of the civil rights movement, with backing from the UAW and other labor unions, were mobilizing to pass landmark civil rights legislation.
On June 23rd, 1963, as part of that fight, Dr. King delivered the Speech at the Great March on Detroit. King worked out of an office in Solidarity House, the UAW’s headquarters, while organizing the Detroit march; the speech he gave there is considered the first version of his now famous I Have a Dream Speech delivered to over 200,000 people attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Speech to the UAW 25th Anniversary Dinner April 27, 1961
Mr. Chairman, President Reuther, distinguished Secretary of Labor, Mr. Goldberg, Senator Hart, all of the distinguished guests assembled here on the platform, delegates and friends of UAW, Ladies and Gentlemen, I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here this evening and to be a part of his auspicious occasion, and
I cannot stand here without giving just a word of thanks to this great union for all that you have done across these 25 years. You have made life more meaningful for millions of people, and I'm sure that America is a better place in which to live as a result of the great work that has been done by UAW. You have given to this nation a magnificent example of honest, democratic trade unionism. And your great president, Walter Reuther, will certainly go down in history as one of the truly great persons of this generation. (APPLAUSE)
I bring greetings to you this evening from the hundreds and thousands - yea, millions of people in the Southland who are struggling for freedom and human dignity. I bring greetings to you from the thousands of Negro students who have stood up courageously against the principalities of segregation for all of the all of these months they have moved in a uniquely meaningful orbit, imparting light and heat to distant satellites. And, as a result of their non-violent and yet courageous struggle, they have been able to bring about integration in more than 139 cities at the lunch counters. (APPLAUSE)
I am sure that when historians look back over this particular era of our history, they will have to record this movement as one of the most significant epics of our heritage.
Now, as I think with you tonight and think about this significant occasion, I would like to open by saying that organized labor has come a long, long way from the days of the strike-breaking injunctions of federal courts, from the days of intimidation and firings in the plants, from the days that your union leaders could be physically beaten with impunity. The clubs and claws of the heartless anti-labor forces have been clipped and you now have organizations of strength and intelligence to keep your interest from being submerged and ignored. This is certainly the glorious meaning of your 25th Anniversary.
Negroes who are now but beginning their march from the dark and desolate Egypt of segregation and discrimination can gain from you real inspiration and encouragement for the hard road still ahead. But though we have a multitude of problems almost absorbing every moment of our time and consuming almost every ounce of our energies, we cannot be unmindful of new problems confronting labor. And toward these problems we are not neutral because they are our problems as well.
The auto workers are facing hard core unemployment. New economic patterning through automation and relocation of plants is dissolving the nation's basic industries. This is to me a catastrophe. We are neither technologically advanced nor socially enlightened as a nation if we witness this disaster for tens of thousands with finding a solution. And by a solution I mean a real and genuine alternative providing the same living standards and opportunities which were swept away by a force called progress, but which for many is destruction.
A Society that performs miracles with machinery has the capacity to make some miracles for men if it values men as highly as it values machines.
This is really the crux of the problem. Are we as concerned for human values and human resources as we are for material and mechanical values? The automobile industry is not alone a production complex of assembly lines and steel-forming equipment. It is an industry of people who must live in decency with the security for children, for old age, for health and cultural life. Automation cannot be permitted to become a blind monster which grinds out more cars and simultaneously snuffs out the hopes and lives of the people by whom the industry was built.
Perhaps few people can so well understand the problems of auto workers and others in labor as Negroes themselves, 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 or workers. We too realize that when human values are subordinated to blind economic forces, human beings can become human scrap.
Our kinship was not born, however, with the rise of automation. In the birth of your organization as you confronted recalcitrant antagonists, you forged new weapons appropriate to your fight. Thus in the 30s, when industrial unionism sought recognition as a form of industrial democracy, there were powerful forces which said to you the same words we as Negroes hear now: "Never…..You are not ready…..You are really seeking to change our form of society….You are Reds….You are troublemakers…..You are stirring up discontent and discord where none exists….You are interfering with our propertyrights…. You are captives of sinister elements who would exploit you."
Both of us have heard these reckless charges. Both of us know that what we have sought were simple basic needs without which no man is a whole person.
In your pursuit of these goals during the middle 30s, in part of your industry you creatively stood up for your rights by sitting down at your machines, just as our courageous students are sitting down at lunch counters across the South. They screamed at you and said that you were destroying property rights-but nearly 30 years later the ownership of the automobile industry is still in the hands of its stockholders and the value of its shares has multiplied manyfold, producing profits of awesome size, and we are proudly borrowing your techniques, and though the same old and tired threats and charges have been dusted off for us, we doubt that we shall collectivize a single lunch counter or nationalize the consumption of sandwiches and coffee. (APPLAUSE)
Because you persisted in your quest for a better life, you brought new horizons to the whole nation. Industry after industry was compelled to civilize its practices and in so doing benefited themselves along with you. The new unions became social institutions, which stabilized the nation, fortified it and thrust it up to undreamed of levels of production.
There are more ties of kinship between labor and the Negro people than tradition. For example, labor needs a wage-hour bill which puts a firm floor under wage scales. Negroes need the same measures, even more desperately, for so many of us earn less than One Dollar and twenty-five cents an hour. Labor needs housing legislation to protect it as a consumer. Negroes need housing legislation also. Labor needs an adequate old-age medical care bill and so do Negroes. The list might be extended ad infinitum for it is axiomatic that what labor needs. Negroes need and simple logic therefore puts us side by side in the struggle for all elements in the decent standard of living.
As we survey the problems of labor from the chilling threat of automation to the needs in housing and social welfare generally, we confront the necessity to have a Congress responsive to liberal legislation. Here again the kinship of interests of labor and the Negro people expresses itself. Negroes need liberal Congressmen if they are to realize equality and opportunity. The campaign to grant the ballot to Negroes in the South has profound implications From all I have outlines, it is clear that the Negro vote would not be utilized in a vacuum. Negroes exercising a free suffrage would march to the polls to support those candidates who would be partial to social legislation. Negroes in the South, whether they elected white or Negro Congressmen, would be placing in office a liberal candidate, if you will-a-labor candidate. (APPLAUSE) No other political leader could have a program possessing appeal to Negroes.
In these circumstances, the campaign for Negro suffrage is both a fulfillment of constitutional rights and a fulfillment of labor's needs in a fast changing economy. Therefore, I feel justified in asking you for your continued support in the struggle to achieve the ballot all over the nation and in the South in particular. We, the Negro people and labor, by extending the frontiers of democracy to the South, inevitably will sow the seed of liberalism, where reaction has flourished unchallenged for decades. A new day will dawn which will see militant, steadfast and reliable Congressmen from the South joining those from the Northern industrial states to design and enact legislation for the people rather than for the privileged.
Now I need not say to you that this problem and all of the problems which we face in the nation and in the world, for that matter, will not work itself out. We know that if the problem is to be solved, we must work to solve it. Evolution may be true in the biological realm, but when we week to apply it to the whole of society, there is very little evidence for it.
Social progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time itself becomes the ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of social stagnation. So in order to realize the American dream of economic justice and of the brotherhood of man, men and women all over the nation must continue to work for it.
They have certain words that are used in every academic discipline and pretty soon they become a part of the technical nomenclature of that discipline . Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any word in modern psychology-it is a word maladjusted, this is the ringing cry of a new child of psychology-maladjusted.
Now certainly all of us are desirous of living the well-adjusted life in order to avoid the neurotic and schizophrenic personalities, but if you will allow the preacher in me to come out now, let me say to you that there are some things in our social order in which I'm proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to continue to be maladjusted. (APPLAUSE)
I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination . I never intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never intend to become adjusted to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism of the self-depleting effect of physical violence. In a day when Sputniks and Explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer a choice between violence and no-violence, it is either non-violence or non-existence. And so I'm proud to be maladjusted. (APPLAUSE)
It may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted and so let us be maladjusted if maladjusted as Prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries. "Let judgment run down like waters and righteous like a mighty stream. "as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist "half slave and half free," as maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who, in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, would cry out in words lifted to cosmic proportions, "We hold these truth's to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights…..(APPLAUSE)
And I believe that through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom, justice and human dignity for all men.
We will continue to work, and work with the faith that this dream can be realized. I believe it will be realized. For although the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice. Before this dream is realized, maybe some will have to get scarred up; before the dream is realized, maybe some will have to go to jail; before the dream is realized, maybe some will have to face physical death; but if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more honorable. (APPLAUSE)
There is something in this universe. So we must continue to struggle for economic justice-the brotherhood of man with the conviction that there is something in this universe which justifies Carlyle in saying, "No lie can live forever." There is something in this universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, "Truth crushed to earth shall rise again." There is something in this universe which justifies James Russell Lowell in saying, "Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. " Yet that scaffold sways the future.
This is our hope. This is the faith that will carry us on the and if we will stand by this and continue to work for the ideal, we will be able to bring into being that new day. This will be the day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing anew with the Negro slaves of old, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" (APPLAUSE)