+ Organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
+ Pressured POTUS Franklin Roosevelt into signing Executive Order to stop
segregation in Defense Contracting
+ Pressure POTUS H. Truman into signing Executive Order to end segregation in the
+ Directed March on Washington in 1963
+ First Vice President of the AFL-CIO in 1955 to 1968
+ Founder of Negro American Labor Council
+ Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by POTUS Johnson
+ The movie “10,000 Black Men Named George” was written about Randolph’s life
Asa Philip Randolph was born in Crescent City, Florida in 1889 to a working class African Methodist Episcopal preacher and his wife. Randolph’s father, James W. Randolph, was heavily influenced by Black Nationalism. In the early 1900’s Henry McNeal Turner, fellow AME preacher was first developing a philosophy that called for black people to leave America in mass and resettle in Africa.[D] Turner also believes G-d was black and it was important for blacks to see G-d in their image. Black nationalist thinking will have a profound effect on Randolph’s life.
Randolph’s parents were not only armchair philosophers; they lived what they preached. A black man was being held in a Florida county jail. A mob was preparing to lynch the detainee, and James Randolph organized a protection force to surround the jail. His mother sat at home and protected the family with a loaded shotgun.[C] Philip Randolph vividly recounts the story in many sources.
In Randolph’s early years he excelled in school. Randolph graduated valedictorian of his high school class in 1907. He left Florida to pursue an acting career and went to New York City in 1911.[A] While in the acting community he was first introduced to Socialism. He began to devour all the information he could on the new philosophy. While at one of these Socialist meetings he met Chandler Owen, a Columbia law student. The two began a partnership that synthesized various elements of Socialism and black liberation. The pair was colloquially known in Harlem as “Lenin” (Owen) and “Trotsky” (Randolph).
The partnership of Randolph and Owen culminated in the periodical they published called the “Messenger” in 1917. “Messenger” campaigned against lynchings, American participation in World War 1, and segregation. The publication was endorsed by the Socialist Party of America and deemed by the Department of Justice as “the most dangerous of all Negro publications.” [A]Various ideological differences caused the publication to disband in 1919. [A]
Randolph initial forays as a union organizer were troublesome. He first attempted to organize New York City Elevator Operators. He then became president of the National Brotherhood of Workers of America, a shipyard worker union. The National Brotherhood dissolved due to pressure from the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
His greatest success as a union leader came with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). The largest group of Sleeping Car Porters worked for the Pullman Company. The Pullman Company was one of the biggest railroad companies in the early 1900’s. The Sleeping Car, as the name entails, had sleeping berths to allow a person to sleep on long train rides. The Pullman Company had a reputation for the best and most luxurious sleeping cars. A trip on a Pullman Car would be a huge status symbol.
A Sleeping Car Porter would be equivalent to a modern day airline stewardess, hotel concierge, and luggage handler all in one. The Sleeping Car Porter would greet the traveler on entry, carry their bags, inform them of train rules, show them around the train. Before the porters unionized, they would commonly work one hundred hours a week. The pay was $1,230 a year in 1927, when the poverty line was $1,500.
Randolph was elected president of the BSCP in 1925. It was the first time a black union took on a large corporation. As with many other labor movements, Pullman Company used violence and intimidation to subvert unionizing efforts. Despite adversity, the BSCP was able to sign 51% of porters into their union in the first year.[A] In 1935, Randolph was able to begin negotiations with the Pullman Company. In 1937, the Pullman Company entered the contract with the BSCP.
Randolph’s success in the BSCP made him a prominent figure in Civil Rights. He decided to turn his attention to racial segregation in the war industry. He partnered with Bayard Rustin to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1941. Randolph threatened to have 50,000 people protesting in the city. POTUS F. Roosevelt felt the pressure and signed Executive Order 8802 also known as the Fair Employment Act. The Fair Employment Act ended racial segregation in war industry. The 1941 March was called off due to the signage of the executive order.
Randolph understood his work was incomplete. He now focused on ending segregation in the armed forces. Randolph formed the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service to pressure the government into abolishing segregation in military service. He went as far as telling black people not to register for the draft.[A] POTUS H. Truman felt this pressure and signed Executive Order 9981 to abolish military segregation in 1948.[A]
By the 1950’s, a new group of Civil Rights leaders was coming to the forefront. The most promising of the bunch was a young Georgia preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. Randolph arranged for Bayard Rustin to teach King how to organize and build coalitions. Rustin and Randolph’s tutelage culminated in King being the keynote speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
While advocating for Civil Rights on the whole Randolph continued to fight for labor rights within the American Federation of Labor (AFL). America has a long history of racism and segregation in labor unions. Randolph also decided to fight this corruption inside the unions. The AFL chartered the BSCP in 1935. Randolph’s involvement continued through the merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Randolph served as vice president of the newly formed AFL-CIO from 1955 until 1968.
Randolph also got Civil Rights leaders involved in the labor movement. The only time Malcolm X participated in a labor strike was 1962’s fifty-six-day strike for the benefit of hospital workers at the Brookdale Medical Center. Malcolm X spoke at their rally and publicly supported the black and brown workers. It is important to note he shared the platform with Dr. Martin Luther King. [B]
A. Philip Randolph died in 1979 of a heart condition
Banks, W. M. 1996, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Randolph, A.P 1917 and Owen, Chandler, Terms of Peace and the Darker Race, Poole Press Association (E-book version on Google Play)
A. Pfeffer, Paula F. (2000). “Randolph; Asa Philip”. American National Biography Online.
B. “A look at Malcolm X as a mirror for America” New York Times 12-16-1992
C. Asa Philip Randolph biography on http://www.aflcio.org
D. Scott, Daryl (1999) “ Immigrant Indigestion” Center for Immigration Studies