“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.