The American labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), considered the most prominent of all African American trade unionists, was one of the major figures in the struggle for civil rights.
The son of an itinerant minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, A. Philip Randolph was born in Crescent City, Florida, on April 15, 1889. He attended Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida, after which he studied at the City College of New York. Following his marriage in 1914 to Lucille E. Green, he helped organize the Shakespearean Society in Harlem and played the roles of Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo, among others. At the age of 21 Randolph joined the Socialist party of Eugene V. Debs. In 1917 he and Chandler Owen founded the Messenger, a radical publication now regarded by scholars as among the most brilliantly edited ventures in African American journalism.
Out of his belief that the African American can never be politically free until he was economically secure, Randolph became the foremost advocate of the full integration of black workers into the American trade union movement. In 1925 he undertook the leadership of the campaign to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), which would become the first African American union in the country. The uphill battle for certification, marked by fierce resistance from the Pullman Company (who was then the largest employers of blacks in the country), was finally won in 1937 and made possible the first contract ever signed by a white employer with an African American labor leader. Later, Randolph served as president emeritus of the BSCP and a vice-president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
In the 1940s Randolph developed the strategy of mass protest to win two significant Executive orders. In 1941, with the advent of World War II, he conceived the idea of a massive march on Washington to protest the exclusion of African American workers from jobs in the defense industries. He agreed to call off the march only after President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in defense plants and established the nation's first Fair Employment Practice Committee. In 1948 Randolph warned President Harry Truman that if segregation in the armed forces was not abolished, masses of African Americans would refuse induction. Soon Executive Order 9981 was issued to comply with his demands.
In 1957 Randolph organized the Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington to support civil rights efforts in the South, and in 1957 and 1958 he organized a Youth March for Integrated Schools. In August 1963, Randolph organized the March on Washington, fighting for jobs and freedom. This was the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famed "I Have a Dream," speech, and a quarter million people came in support to the nation's capital. Randolph was called "the chief" by King. And in 1966, at the White House conference "To Fulfill These Rights," he proposed a 10-year program called a "Freedom Budget" which would eliminate poverty for all Americans regardless of race.
The story of Randolph's career reads like a history of the struggles for unionization and civil rights in this century. He lent his voice to each struggle and enhanced the development of democracy and equality in America. Randolph always said that his inspiration came from his father. "We never felt that we were inferior to any white boys…" Randolph said. "We were told constantly and continuously that ('you are as able,' 'you are as competent,' and 'you have as much intellectuality as any individual.')" Randolph died on May 16, 1979.
However, Randolph's message lived on. Seventeen years after his death, Randolph's civil rights leadership and labor activism became the subject of a 1996 PBS documentary, A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom. The tribute that took him from "obscurity" to a force that "moved presidents," was presented in conjunction with Black History Month, in February, telling his story through reenactments, film footage and photos.
Included were powerful images of the quest, including the formation of the National Association for the Promotion of Labor Unionism Among Negroes in 1919 and the 12-year battle to organize porters in spite of the Pullman Company's use of spies and firings to thwart it.
Throughout his years as a labor and civil rights leader, Randolph rocked the foundations of racial segregation, pressuring presidents and corporations alike to recognize the need to remedy the injustices heaped on African Americans. Embracing a nonviolent, forward looking activism, Randolph will be remembered as both a "radical subversive" and "Saint Philip."
Further Reading on A. Philip Randolph
There are two biographies available on Randolph. Jervis Anderson's A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait (1986) and Sally Hanley's A. Philip Randolph (1989), as well as Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (1988) will provide good insight. There were two useful sites available through the internet. A guest editorial on Randolph's work was accessed at http://www.ai.mit.edu/people/ellens/NCRA/randolph.html (July 29, 1997). Information on the aforementioned PBS special can be accessed at http://www2.pbs.org/weta/apr/aprprogram.html (July 29, 1997). His career and life were discussed in numerous books on African Americans and the labor movement. Among the older studies are Sterling D. Spero and Abram L. Harris, The Black Worker (1931); Bruce Minton and John Stuart, Men Who Lead Labor (1937); and Edwin R. Embree, 13 against the Odds (1944). More recent studies are Saunders J. Redding, The Lonesome Road: The Story of the Negro's Part in America (1958); Herbert Garfinkel, When Negroes March (1959); Arna W. Bontemps, 100 Years of Negro Freedom (1961); Russell L. Adams, Great Negroes: Past and Present (1963; 3d ed. 1969); and Roy Cook, Leaders of Labor (1966).