A. Philip Randolph

August 30, 2013
Guest Post

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.

In 1925, at age 36, Randolph hardly seemed destined for a leading national role. Then came an encounter that would, in time, move Randolph from polemicist to strategist, and from the outer edges of protest to the center stage of American political life. A few intrepid porters working for the powerful Pullman Company asked Randolph to lead an effort to organize a union of sleeping car porters.

The porters held a dichotomous position in America. The job was simultaneously one of the more prestigious occupations available in the black community because of the opportunity to travel, and demeaning because income hinged on tips from white customers who expected deference and often called porters “George” regardless of their names, a reference to the first name of the founder of the Pullman Company.

It took 12 years, well into the New Deal, for Randolph to lead the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to official recognition and a new contract that significantly lifted wages and improved working conditions.  The often overheated prose of his days as a magazine editor evolved into coolness under attack as the leader of the Brotherhood.

With official recognition of the Brotherhood came growing recognition of Randolph as a champion not only of the porters but of African-American workers in every industry.  Year after year, at American Federation of Labor (AFL) conventions, Randolph fought the entrenched racism of many of the federation’s member unions.  He repeatedly called for expelling any union that, in defiance of the AFL constitution, barred black workers.

His annual appeals struck a painful nerve.   He was, in the words of the journalist Murray Kempton, “a nuisance of great presence.”  By 1959, George Meany, then President of the AFL-CIO, exasperated by Randolph’s attacks on bigotry, asked Randolph “Who the hell appointed you as the guardian of all the Negroes in America?”

Randolph’s leadership of the porters had indeed given him an institutional platform to fight discrimination in other American institutions as well and he seized the opportunity. In 1941, with America re-arming and defense industry jobs a coveted ticket to the middle class after a decade of Depression and painfully slow recovery, Randolph insisted that this gateway to economic security be open to African-Americans.   He made clear that unless President Roosevelt banned discrimination in defense jobs, thousands of blacks would march on Washington.

At the president’s request, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia tried to dissuade Randolph.  He would not budge.  The result was Executive Order 8802, declaring that it was the policy of the United States “that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Although Roosevelt’s order integrated the defense industry, the military was still segregated.  In 1947, Randolph cofounded an organization that later became the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience against Military Segregation.  The league’s executive secretary was Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist and organizational genius.  In a contentious meeting with President Truman, Randolph told the president that he and other black leaders wanted an executive order to integrate the military.  

Truman initially resisted their appeals.  Randolph responded by calling on African-American men to go to jail rather than obey the draft.  “I personally will advise Negroes to refuse to fight as slaves for a democracy they cannot possess and cannot enjoy,” Randolph testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Randolph’s refusal to back down paid off in 1948, when Truman issued Executive Order 9981, banning racial discrimination in the armed forces.

By the early 1960’s, the struggles of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters against the Pullman Company and the drive to integrate the military and defense industry had receded in memory.   Yet Randolph remained, into his seventies, deeply engaged and respected, someone whose long years of struggle and strategic vision mattered greatly to younger civil rights leaders.

As a result, when Randolph and Rustin  revived the idea of a march on Washington, a broad coalition of civil rights, interfaith, and labor groups came together to plan the event. Once again, however, the prospect of a large-scale march on Washington unsettled a U.S. president.

Two months before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was to take place, President Kennedy brought Randolph and other black leaders to the White House, urging them not to go forward. This time, Randolph was not seeking an executive order.  Nor was he seeking presidential permission to act.  He explained to Kennedy why the march could not turn back.

Self-possessed but not self-righteous, Randolph combined courtly manners with a steely resolve. His refusal to personalize disputes stands in instructive relief to the often vituperative state of politics today.  His insistence that the drive for equality was inseparable from the availability of jobs remains as relevant in a digital, globalized economy as it was in the era of legal segregation.  His understanding of the moral power of labor is worth remembering and reviving.  His explicitly interracial message bridged divides that still plague us.  His capacity, over many decades of fighting for jobs and civil rights, to meet adversity not with despair but with renewed determination can serve as a model for anyone seeking social change.

[image via Library of Congress]