With his rise to national prominence, Reuther worked to shape national policy on issues of social equality and justice. "You can’t opt out of life," he said in 1968. "You’ve got to make up your mind whether you’re willing to accept things as they are, or whether you’re willing to try to change them." The labor leader was influential in the passage of civil rights legislation and in developing President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty program. Reuther also advised the Johnson administration on the Model Cities program that provided greatly needed funds for the redevelopment of Detroit and other distressed urban areas.
Walter Reuther also demonstrated a personal commitment to civil rights and social justice. He marched with civil rights activists in Mississippi and hospital workers in South Carolina. Reuther was a strong supporter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The UAW financed the 1963 freedom marches in Detroit and Washington, DC. Reuther was one of the few non-African American speakers at the Washington march. In a recent Time article, Irving Bluestone, Reuther’s administrative assistant and long-time friend, told a story about one perplexed marcher asking another "Who is Walter Reuther?" "Walter Reuther?" was the incredulous response. "He’s the white Martin Luther King." Under Reuther’s leadership, the UAW also provided essential financial and logistical support for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in their struggle to humanize agricultural work in the southwestern United States.
Believing that labor had to organize internationally to counter multinational corporations, Reuther forged ties with labor organizations worldwide. He was a founding member of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and affiliated the UAW with the International Metalworkers Federation.
Walter Reuther was also an advocate for worker education. In the late 1960’s the UAW constructed an education center near Black Lake in northern Michigan. It was en route to the center that Walter and May Reuther were killed in a plane crash on May 9, 1970. The center is now named in their honor.
Friends and foes eulogized Walter Reuther for his leadership in the labor movement and for his commitment to social reform. "He saw the labor movement as an instrument for social justice" and "for human progress," said Bluestone. Michigan Senator Philip Hart offered: "You were part of Walter Reuther’s constituency if you were poor, powerless...if you were old, if you were sick." Henry Ford II added, "Walter Reuther was an extraordinarily effective advocate of labor’s interest. His tough-minded dedication, his sense of social concern, his selflessness and his eloquence all mark him as a central figure in the development of modern industrial history." Indeed, Reuther’s legacy is part of the day-to-day lives of many Americans. Millions of workers enjoy a high standard of living because of advances won at the bargaining table by Walter Reuther.