Remembering the Legacy of Union Leader A. Phillip Randolph on Labor Day

A. Phillip Randolph (AP Photo)
A. Phillip Randolph (AP Photo)

“We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom. This revolution reverberates throughout the land, touching every village where black men are segregated, oppressed and exploited,” the 74-year-old A. Philip Randolph told the estimated 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom fifty years ago on August 28, 1963.

Although today Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech often symbolizes the March for many, it was very much a stand for black workers with longtime labor leader Randolph at the forefront. He was so committed that neither advanced age nor the death of his wife shortly before the March could keep him home.

More than twenty years before, it was Randolph who had conceived the massive demonstration.  Scheduled to take place July 1, 1941, the original March was intended to protest discrimination against black employment in defense industries and federal bureaus and demand that President Franklin D. Roosevelt issue an Executive Order to end such practices.

So, on June 25, 1941, when Roosevelt, after exhausting all means, including personal appeals from his wife Eleanor to Randolph, to call off the march which anticipated 100,000 participants, issued Executive Order 8802 creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee and barring discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus, Randolph called off the March in victory.  Merging the philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois by setting economic justice as the foundation of civil rights, Randolph would not stop or even begin here.

Born Asa Philip Randolph, the second of his parents’ two sons, on April 15, 1889 in Crescent, Fla, near Jacksonville where he later grew up, service was a consistent message in his childhood. His father, the Rev. James W. Randolph, in keeping with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) philosophy, ministered to his congregation’s social and spiritual needs. Rev. Randolph and his wife Elizabeth, who hailed from a once enslaved family who were also AME members, taught their sons racial pride and self-respect. Encouraging young Asa Randolph’s healthy thirst for knowledge, Rev. Randolph filled the family’s home.

Tall, handsome, popular and smart, Randolph sang in the choir, was a star baseball player and a great speaker. Despite graduating valedictorian from Cookman Institute (later incorporated into Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla.) in 1907, there was not suitable employment for him in Jacksonville. Not wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps as minister, Randolph hired himself out as a hand on a steamship and headed for New York City in 1911, shortly after he turned 22, with dreams of becoming an actor.

In New York, he worked several jobs, including elevator operator, porter and waiter, while also studying English Literature and Sociology at City College at night. Despite organizing the Shakespearean Society in Harlem and playing several roles, including Hamlet, Othello and Romeo, Randolph was clearly destined to make his mark on a different stage. With kindred spirit Chandler Owen, a Columbia University student, Randolph founded the employment agency, the Brotherhood of Labor, where the two tried to unionize black workers.

As founders of The Messenger in 1917, Chandler and Randolph, two of the nation’s most prominent black Socialists, regularly championed jobs, higher wages and improved conditions for black Americans. Later billed as “The Only Magazine of Scientific Radicalism in the World Published by Negroes,” The Messenger, which also included poetry and literature, along with political and sociological works, was so pro worker that it later evolved into Black Worker after its 1928 demise.

Randolph, whose wife Lucille Campbell Green, a Howard University graduate and former schoolteacher he married in 1914 frequently supported him financially, got even more hands on by organizing New York City elevator operators into a union in 1917.

In 1919, he became president of the National Brotherhood of Workers of America, a union for black shipyard and dock workers in Virginia that, under pressure from the American Federation of Labor, folded in 1921.  Sought out by a group of Pullman Porters, Randolph got his starring role as the founding president of their union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters on August 25, 1925. The only problem was their employer, the Pullman Company, not only refused to recognize them, but also worked hard to destroy them. Porters who joined the union in its first year faced violent intimidation and firings.

After failing to win mediation under the Watson-Parker Railway Labor Act in 1928, Randolph called off a proposed strike on rumors that Pullman had 5,000 workers waiting to replace BSCP members and membership plummeted. Congressional amendments to the Railway Labor Act in 1934 to include sleeping car companies and non-operating train personnel, however, recharged the BSCP. According to Melinda Chateauvert’s Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, “The new act removed almost every anti-labor provision of the original 1926 Watson-Parker Act, giving the railroad unions the same bargaining powers other unions would enjoy . . . (68).”

And Randolph definitely used them. In 1935, the Pullman Company did begin negotiations with the BSCP, eventually resulting in a 1937 contract netting $2 million in pay increases, a shorter workweek and overtime pay. Never one to tolerate racial discrimination, Randolph withdrew BSCP from the AFL, despite a long-time battle for their recognition, when its leadership continually failed to address the inequality in its ranks and, instead, aligned BSCP with the newer and more radical Congress of Industrial Organizations.

It was this track record of bold action and tangible results that gave Randolph the credibility to propose the 1941 March on Washington that got FDR’s attention. But Randolph did not stop at the success of Executive Order 8802. As founder of the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation, Randolph pressed President Harry S. Truman to integrate the military, which was achieved through Executive Order 9981 in 1948.

When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, Randolph became a vice-president on the Executive Council plus he helped found the Negro American Labor Council in 1959. In 1965, Randolph and his longtime protégé Bayard Rustin, who did the heavy lifting of leading the physical organizing of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which according to its website, is “an Organization of Black Trade Unionist to Fight for Racial Equality and Economic Justice.” [sic]

Failing health, however, led to Randolph stepping down as BSCP president in 1968. He was, however, able to extend himself to Jervis Anderson for A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait, published in 1973, before passing away on May 16, 1979 at the age of 90.

“No individual did more to help the poor, the dispossessed and the working class in the United States and around the world than A. Philip Randolph,” Rustin declared upon his mentor’s death. Randolph’s contributions were vast, reverberating in small yet big ways. E.D. Nixon, for example, who helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to which Rustin also lent critical strategic assistance, was a one-time Pullman Porter who helped organized BSCP under Randolph’s leadership.

In addition, Randolph, himself, was hands on with other civil rights activities not directly tied to labor concerns like organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedomat the Lincoln Memorial on May 17, 1957 to encourage federal support of the Brown v. Board of Education decision during Eisenhower’s administration that drew nearly 25,000 demonstrators.

“People should never, ever forget the role that A. Philip Randolph played,” Congressman John Lewis, who was the youngest speaker on the program for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, told The Florida Times-Union recently. “He should be looked at as one of the founding fathers of a new America, a better America.”

article by Ronda Racha Penrice via

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