Asa Philip RandolphJun 10th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism
1889 – 1979 Asa Philip Randolph was the preeminent organizer of African Americans in pursuit of labor, civil, and human rights. He built upon his success in the labor movement to bring about social change by influencing U.S. Presidents, the Congress, and other federal institutions, and made a vital contribution to the campaign for equal rights for all Blacks.
Excelling at an Early Age
Randolph was born in 1889 to a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church, the Rev. James W. Randolph, and his wife Elizabeth, in Crescent City, Florida. The Rev. Randolph named his second son Asa after one of the Old Testament’s great kings, and imparted a love of freedom, racial pride, self-reliance, and ministering to social needs.
The family moved to Jacksonville when Randolph was two years old. At age 14 he entered the Cookman Institute, where he excelled in all areas, including sports (baseball), music (lead singer in the choir), and speaking. Graduating at the top of his class, his valedictory address was on racial pride. He held menial jobs after graduation, and in 1911 Randolph joined the great migration north to New York City and the Black center of Harlem.
Randolph took night classes at the College of the City of New York in sociology and philosophy in an effort to improve his prospects. He became enamored of the principles of socialism and labor organization, perceiving economic justice as the means to racial equality. He joined the Socialist Party, and became involved with the Harlem intellectual scene. He met Lucille Campbell Green, a widow, at a discussion group and married her soon thereafter. In 1912, another social encounter led to Randolph’s involvement with an employment agency. His friend Chandler Owen also became involved. Together they attempted to use the agency to advance employees’ rights, and through it they widened their circle of prominent acquaintances in the local labor community.
As a result, Randolph and Owen were asked to edit a magazine, the Hotel Messenger, in support of the labor concerns of hotel waiters. After Randolph was discharged for writing a politically unpopular editorial, he and Owen started their own magazine. Their new Messenger was to be “The first voice of radical, revolutionary, economic, and political action among Negroes in America.” First published in 1917, the Messenger (later the Black Worker) attracted young Black intellectuals and white socialists, and was a force on the Harlem political scene for five years. During this period, Randolph lectured at New York’s Rand School of Social Science, organized a small union of elevator operators, and ran unsuccessfully for political positions on the Socialist Party ticket.
Randolph had become sufficiently well-known that he was approached by employees of the Pullman Company with the idea of establishing a labor union. These Pullman Porters rode overnight railroad cars, providing services for the occupants. They were poorly paid, worked long hours, were expected to perform additional menial duties (such as shining shoes), and were dependent on tips. Unions had succeeded in improving conditions for white workers, but never for Blacks. Randolph accepted the challenge, and The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was created in 1925 with the motto “Service, not Servitude” and this agenda: company recognition of the Brotherhood, a higher minimum wage, payment for “free” services, and shorter working hours. The campaign would last 12 acrimonious years, but in 1937 the Pullman Company signed the first labor contract in U.S. history between a white employer and a Black union leader, meeting all of Randolph’s goals.
Turning His Attention from Labor to Civil Rights
He soon turned his attention and growing reputation to the broader arena of civil rights. He traveled throughout the U.S. in 1940 and 1941 promoting the idea of a “March on Washington” to protest discrimination against African Americans in the government defense industries of World War II. His actions generated enough support to force President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign Executive Order No. 8802 in 1941, banning discrimination in civilian defense plants and creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
In 1947, two years after the end of WWII, Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman, proposed a peace-time draft. Randolph and other African American leaders met with Truman to press for a ban on segregation as part of the program. Truman refused. In another triumph, Randolph launched a campaign urging Blacks to refuse to register for the draft. Truman capitulated, signing Executive Order No. 9981 in 1948, prohibiting segregation and discrimination in the armed services.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had separated from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in protest against discrimination in the organization, and joined the rival Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In 1955, with the merging of the two factions into the AFL-CIO, Randolph was appointed Vice President of the combined entity. He created and became President of the Negro American Labor Council in 1959 to ensure representation for Blacks within the labor movement. On the political front, he continued to organize demonstrations in support of civil rights, leading to the capstone event of his career: Randolph directed the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Approximately 250,000 Americans converged on the nation’s capital to hear such speakers as Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Walter Reuther, culminating with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Afterward, Randolph, King and others met with President John F. Kennedy. Within one year of this seminal event, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in the subsequent year the Voting Rights Act. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Randolph the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, in recognition of his achievements.
Randolph founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute in 1965 with a mandate to continue his work and to study the causes of poverty. The Institute is still operating today. Randolph retired from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1968 after 43 years of service, at which time his health declined. He passed away on May 16, 1979, shortly after his 90th birthday, his funeral attended by such luminaries as President Jimmy Carter. He left a legacy of enormous achievement, and this aspiration: “Salvation for a race, nation or class must come from within. Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”