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A.Philip Randolph was a multi-faceted, multi-talented Black leader renowned for his organizing skills and access to powerful people, including two United States presidents. He played a prominent role in the civil rights movement and although an “integrationist,” the main reason for his success was his unapologetic commitment to Black people.
Randolph’s grounding in his own culture enabled him to successfully collaborate with others, including whites, labor union leadership, government officials and politicians. (Racial and cultural grounding are prerequisites for effectively working with others and should be a part of conversations and strategies to reverse Blacks’ self-denigrating mindsets and ineffective Black leadership.)
That said, the following are highlights in A. Philip Randolph’s storied quest to improve the quality of life for Blacks and other dispossessed people.
In his cry for freedom and justice, A. Philip Randolph echoed the fury of all of those enslaved. From the day he arrived in Harlem in 1911, he was involved in the thick of the struggle for freedom for Black Americans.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 were all fruits of the seeds he and his co-workers planted years before. He believed a good weekly paycheck had to be won first, and then, after the children were fed, a better fight could be waged for dignity and self-pride. With this always in mind, Randolph traveled throughout the nation, just before World War II, to unite Blacks against the discrimination which shut them out of well-paying jobs. The result: In 1941, all over the United States, Black committees were forming to “March on Washington.”
Finally, recognizing that Randolph could not be swayed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order six months before Pearl Harbor in June of 1941 which called for the end of discrimination in government defense plant jobs. This was the beginning of the “fair employment practices” laws. The first “March on Washington” was never held because the president of the United States had yielded to the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters!
In 1948, Randolph fought discrimination against segregation and Jim Crow in the U.S. Armed Forces. Again, the power of his persuasion swayed President Harry S. Truman, who ordered an end to discrimination, not only in the armed forces, but in federal civil service jobs.
Of course, 1963 was another high point in Randolph’s struggle for equality for Blacks and other oppressed people. He headed the famous March on Washington in which more than 250,000 Americans joined under the slogan, “Jobs and Freedom.” In 1966 Randolph developed the Freedom Budget that included $185 billion over ten year for a government assault on poverty.
He started organizing Blacks from his first days in Harlem, but at first, had little to show for his efforts. He came into his own when a group of Pullman porters went to him for help. They wanted the right to bargain for better wages, working conditions and a chance to run their own affairs. After a long struggle and many secret meetings, the organization of Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was announced publicly at the Elks Hall in Chicago, August 25, 1925. But it took twelve years before the Pullman Company would bargain with the Brotherhood.
The Pullman Company used massive strength in attacking Randolph. It fired union members and threatened others with tougher assignments, fewer assignments and layoffs. The law also failed the Brotherhood, as did mediation and arbitration; when the men prepared for a strike as a last resort, the company recruited strikebreakers and private police. At the last moment, the strike was called off; the leadership decided the Brotherhood was simply not strong enough to win at that time.
Randolph always had the same sermon for the Pullman porters: They were being called upon to prove that “Black men are able to measures up,” and in the end, they did. By 1935, not only had the Brotherhood survived, it won an election supervised by the National Mediation Board—the same year the American Federation of Labor reversed its previous position and voted to grant an international charter to the Brotherhood.
In 1963, Randolph was drafted for the presidency of a new organization, the National Negro Congress (NNC), which was made up of a number of groups that planned to build a Black mass movement by working with and through trade unions. Although the NNC was successful in a number of organizing drives, for a variety of reasons, Randolph resigned and the NNC disbanded.
Randolph was also the conscience of organized labor in its attempt to set its own house in order and to remove racial discrimination from within the ranks of the AFL-CIO. He also called on organized labor to join Blacks in their struggle for freedom and thus, “rise to its full moral stature.”
Even in the last years of his life, A. Philip Randolph actively supported efforts to correct laws and practices that denied civil and human rights to Backs and other oppressed people. His unwavering pride in his culture and his people enabled him to persevere despite the enormous racist barriers. Our lives are greatly enhanced by this man’s extraordinary strength and determination to move our people forward.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at email