"The labor movement traditionally has been the only haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden and the poor.” - A. Philip Randolph
Before there was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. there was Asa Philip Randolph, once called the most “dangerous” black man in America.
Born in Crescent City, Florida on April 15th , 1889 to descendants of slaves. A. Philip Randolph would later become a huge force in the labor movement and instrumental in the cause of racial equality for not only blacks but for all those who were the victims of prejudice and oppression.
An excellent student, he graduated at the top of his high school class in Jacksonville but could not afford the cost of college. Unable to find anything but menial work in his home state, he took off for New York City with the ambition of becoming an actor.
He arrived at the beginning of a period time known as the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem, at the time was not only a haven for blacks but also home to waves of European immigrants who, besides their culture and traditions, brought with them a new set of political beliefs in the form of Socialism and Communism. Randolph began taking classes at City College and at the behest of his parents, decided to forget about his acting career and take up politics and economics instead.. He soon joined the Socialist Party and the world was about to change..
In 1917 after taking a cue from fellow socialists Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas he began publication of The MESSENGER, “the only magazine of scientific radicalism in the world published by Negroes.” Besides being opposed to American involvement in World War I, the magazine also brought to its subscribers its view on the labor movement. An excerpt from one of the early editorials tells one all they need to know...
"The history of the labor movement in America proves that the employing classes recognize no race lines, They will exploit a White man as readily as a Black man . . . they will exploit any race or class in order to make profits.
"The combination of Black and White workers will be a powerful lesson to the capitalists of the solidarity of labor. It will show that labor, Black and White, is conscious of its interests and power. This will prove that unions are not based upon race lines, but upon class lines. This will serve to convert a class of workers, which has been used by the capitalist class to defeat organized labor, into an ardent, class conscious, intelligent, militant group."
Enter The Pullman Company
After a couple of failed attempts at running for office, A Philip Randolph began to try his hand in organizing unions. When the federal government ceded control of the railroad industry to private ownership, the Pullman Company formed their own union in order to dissuade outside organizing attempts. At best, it was a sham. The company also hired a private police force in order to enforce its will upon the workers. Randolph was approached (in secret) by a group of black porters who felt that he was qualified to aid them in their cause.
In August of 1925 The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was formed. (Their secret password was SOLIDARITY) The Pullman Company felt the need to respond and did so in the form of spying, intimidation and firings. They went as far as funding efforts led by other black institutions that denounced the Brotherhood as “reds” and Communist sympathizers. After all, wasn’t it the Pullman Company the so –called “benefactor of the Negro race”?
Randolph’ battles with the Pullman Company lasted for over twelve years. During that time the Brotherhood managed to gain support from a diverse group of interests such as the American Federation of Labor, the National Urban League and the NAACP. It wasn’t until 1935 that the Pullman Company finally relented (thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal) and agreed to negotiate with the Brotherhood. The result was that in 1937, the Brotherhood received the first contract ever between a company and a black union.
Enter World War II
Randolph had now got himself a reputation of sorts as an accomplished organizer. He began to focus his efforts on the then booming defense industry. It seems the industry wouldn’t hire blacks even though demand was at an all time high as a result of World War II. He proposed a “March on Washington” (btw, he’ll do it again later) which called upon blacks to unite and take their protest to the Capitol. The black community was receptive to the idea and all was set to go when FDR relented to the pressure and signed an executive order that banned discrimination within the government and among defense industries that were awarded government contracts. A committee by the name of Fair Employment Practices was established to oversee and implement the order. Much to the dismay of many of the more radical factions in the growing labor and civil rights movement, the March was eventually called off. .
On to Civil Rights
The year is now 1947 and President Harry S. Truman has instituted a peacetime draft in order to build up the military. The draft however did not have a provision barring segregation. In response, Randolph formed something called the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training (later to become the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation, which directed blacks to either refuse to register for the draft or refuse to serve if they were called upon. Truman met face to face with Randolph but would not relent.
After Randolph testified about the sincerity of his groups actions before the Senate Armed Services Committee, President Truman caved in and signed an executive order that barred discrimination in the military.
As we enter the 50’s the civil rights movement was in full steam. The Supreme Court was in the process of deciding Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott was in full swing and a preacher by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. was beginning to make a name for himself. Randolph took notice that while the government was effecting changes, there still seemed to be little progress for blacks as far as organized labor was concerned.
It took the effects of a recession in the late 50’s that had a huge impact on blacks to galvanize the different groups into action. It was Randolph who resurrected his idea that there be a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The rest, as we know by now, is history. As result of the March, (finally held on August 28, 1963) the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 were passed. Since then, countless other pieces of legislation have been brought to the table that have a large effect on workers and minorities alike.
Randolph wasn’t through just yet. In 1966 noting that approximately 1/5 of the country was living in poverty. He presented what he-called the Freedom Budget. Recognizing the high cost of the Viet Nam War, the budget called for the spending of 185 billion dollars over a ten year period to alleviate the conditions.
A. Philip Randolph died in New York City on May 16th 1979 His funeral was attended by President Jimmy Carter as well as many leaders of the labor and civil rights movement