by David Frank. Mr. Frank is a former speechwriter to the U.S. Secretary of State and Communications Director for the U.S. Department of Education. Frank is working on a biography of A. Philip Randolph. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The seeds of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were planted, almost 40 years earlier, in Harlem, when several sleeping car porters met with A. Philip Randolph, a magazine editor and eloquent soapbox orator.
Though overshadowed today as on the day of the march by the magnificent message of Martin Luther King Jr., Randolph was the architect of the March on Washington and the movement that led to it. His pivotal part in the march 50 years ago was the culmination of a lifetime of laboring in political and social battles, an often lonely voice insisting on dignity and fair treatment from racist institutions.
Born 40 years before King, in 1889, in the small town of Crescent City, Florida, Randolph was the son of a traveling African Methodist Episcopal preacher who supplemented his meager church income as a tailor. From this inauspicious beginning, Randolph rose to a position of leadership that saw him engage in high-stakes discussions in the Oval Office three times in the mid-twentieth century with three different presidents. In 1941, he demanded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt integrate African-Americans into the rapidly growing defense industry, threatening a march on Washington unless Roosevelt complied. In 1948, he insisted that President Harry S. Truman integrate the armed forces. In 1963, he resisted President John F. Kennedy’s plea to call off the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, rejecting Kennedy’s argument that the march could somehow undermine the effort to enact a civil rights bill.
Randolph took an eclectic route from his humble background to tense negotiations with U.S. presidents. He was at various times an elevator operator, a ship’s waiter (fired for trying to organize his fellow workers), a Harlem street corner orator and a two-time unsuccessful Socialist candidate in New York. For about a decade, beginning in 1917, he co-edited a lively, radical journal of politics and the arts called “The Messenger.” Fiery editorials questioning why blacks, denied equality in America, should serve in the First World War, (“Patriotism has no appeal to us; justice has,” Randolph and his co-editor Chandler Owen wrote) led Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to label Randolph and Owen “the most dangerous Negroes in America.” In 1918, Randolph and Owen were arrested in Cleveland and held in jail for two days for urging African-Americans to resist the draft.