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Asa Philip Randolph

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Asa Philip Randolph, civil rights leader and trade unionist, was born in Crescent City, Florida on April 15, 1889. He was the second of two sons of James, a traveling minister, and Elizabeth, a devoted member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Both parents were strong supporters of equal rights for African Americans and had an overwhelming influence on Randolph. He and his older brother William would often play childhood games that included role playing in which they worked for African American rights. Randolph and his brother were both superior students and attended the Cookman Institute in East Jacksonville, the only academic high school in Florida for African Americans. Randolph excelled in literature, drama and public speaking. It would be Randolph’s strong family influence and academic ambitions that would provide the foundation for his journey on the quest for fair economic and trade rights and racial equality for African Americans.
After graduating high school and working numerous odd jobs Randolph devoted his time to singing, acting and reading. Influenced by W. E. B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk”, Randolph was convinced that the fight for social equality was more important than almost anything else (, 2011). Segregation and racial discrimination against blacks was increasing exponentially each day. In response, Randolph, at the age of 21 in 1910, joined the Socialist Party of America and shunned moderate reform and racial integration, as advocated by Du Bois, and emphasized, instead, social and trade unionism.
Randolph moved to New York City in 1911 where he attended the City College of New York while working as an elevator operator, porter, and a waiter. It was while at City College that Randolph discovered the great works of literature of William Shakespeare and began to sharpen his public speaking skills. In 1914 he helped to organize the Shakespearean Society in Harlem and displayed his talents by playing the roles of Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo among others. He soon gave up on his acting career after failure to gain his parents’ approval. Randolph’s career began to take a different direction through his affiliation with Chandler Owen, a Columbia Law student who shared his same intellectual interests and political views. The two joined the Socialist party and began to teach its propaganda, to include socialism and militant class-consciousness, on the street corners in Harlem. Their actions soon caught the attention of William White, president of the Headwaiters and Sidewaiters Society of Greater New York, and in January 1917, were asked to edit a monthly magazine for the society titled “Hotel Messenger”. However, ties were soon severed when the organization considered the issues of black suffrage to be too radical for the waiters union. As a result, Randolph and Owen renamed the publication “The Messenger” and used the platform to campaign against lynching, oppose U.S. participation in World War I, urge African Americans to resist being drafted, fight for an integrated society, and recommend they join radical unions. The magazine provided an outlet for those who, like Randolph and Owen, were opposed to and skeptical of both the NAACP and Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association. However, after embarking on a nationwide speaking tour and advising blacks to arm themselves against white mob violence, the U.S. Attorney coined Randolph as “the most dangerous Negro in America.” Randolph and Owen were eventually arrested and spent a short time in jail after being charged with treason.
Randolph soon began to venture further into the realm of unionization. His belief that the African American can never be politically free until he was economically secure led him to become the foremost supporter of the full integration of black workers into the American trade union movement. In 1917 he organized a union of elevator operators in New York City. In 1919 he became president of the National Brotherhood of Workers of America, a union which organized amongst African American shipyard and dock workers in the Tidewater region of Virginia. The union dissolved in 1921 under pressure from the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It wasn’t until 1925, after Randolph and Owen had gone their separate ways, when Randolph was asked to unionize the sleeping-car porters of the Pullman Railroad Company. The porters had heard and read Randolph’s eloquent demands for racial justice in “The Messenger.” Although considered a prestigious job for a freed slave, the job of a porter was full of racial indignities. African Americans were hired exclusively to fit racist stereotypes that blacks were servile and that whites would find it more luxurious to be served by blacks. Porters were subjected to bigotry from passengers and other railroad employees. Porters had to pay for their own uniforms and could be ordered to make extra trips without advance notice while not receiving full compensation. To add insult to injury, porters were referred to as “George”, after George Pullman, the founder of the company. The porters turned to unionization to redress these inequalities and indignities. In the early 1920s, the Pullman Company created an employee representation plan to prevent unionizing activity. Seeking a means to combat the Pullman Company, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was formed and A. Phillip Randolph was asked to lead the way.
The Pullman Company, then the largest employer of African Americans in the country, had been successful in smothering attempts of its porters to organize since 1909. The company fired or reassigned union supporters. Those porters who attempted to rally their co-workers to support increases in pay and better working conditions were simply terminated. The porters saw in Randolph, a brilliant leader and outsider who would not collapse under corporate pressure. Randolph immediately recognized the difficulty of persuading blacks to sympathize with a union, primarily because the only exposure most of them had to organized labor was through groups that were for whites only. He also had to contend with the general impression among blacks that porters had a good life, traveling to exotic places around the world and rubbing elbows with the wealthy, albeit in the role of a waiter or shoe-shiner. Randolph also had to deal with the contention that the Pullman Company executives all embraced the precepts of racial segregation. During negotiations, Randolph’s cool and calm demeanor and cordial attitude as well as his quiet dignity disarmed those who used derogatory terms such as “nigger” and “darkie.” New Republic contributor, Murray Kempton, wrote of Randolph, “He carries a courtesy so old-fashioned that the white men with whom he negotiates are sometimes driven to outsized rages by the shock that anyone so polite could cling so stubbornly to what he believes” (Kempton, 1963). After years of bitter struggle and an attempted $10,000 bribe, which Randolph declined, the Pullman Company caved in and finally began to negotiate with the Brotherhood in 1935. In 1937, a contract agreement was reached and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was sanctioned as the first black union in the country. From the agreement, the porters gained $2 million in pay increases, a shorter workweek, and overtime pay. Randolph’s success earned him the name “Saint Philip of the Pullman Porters.” His continued success in organized labor led to the founding of the Negro American Labor Council and to him becoming the first black vice-president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the United States.
Underlying Randolph’s passion for labor rights was a conviction that equality for blacks could only be achieved if economic opportunity did not fall along racial lines. He believed as long as blacks were kept in menial jobs, unable to tap into advancing technology, they would forever be treated as second-class citizens, relegated to the back of buses and restaurants. He then began looking out at the nation for other areas and industries where blacks were locked out of economic parity and deprived of justice. Private defense plants and the segregation of the U.S. Army soon came under his ire in 1940. Randolph appealed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that discrimination in private defense plants as well as segregation in the U. S. Army be stopped only to be rebuffed. It was President Roosevelt’s defiance that caused Randolph to develop the strategy of mass protest with which he won two major executive orders. Randolph had come to the realization that friendly requests and congenial meetings would never work on their own so he ignited the idea of leading a protest march of 10,000 blacks in Washington D.C. Randolph continually raised the stakes to President Roosevelt by saying 50,000 then 100,000 blacks would take part in the march. While acceptance of Randolph’s plan grew wildly he was also criticized by those who felt he was perpetuating the same divisiveness the march was designed to eliminate. Randolph responded, according to The New York Review of Books, by saying, “You take ten thousand dollars from a white man; you have his ten thousand dollars, but he’s got your movement. You take ten cents from a Negro; you’ve got his ten cents, and you also have the Negro” (, 2005). President Roosevelt then sent his wife, Eleanor, to persuade Randolph to call off the “invasion” into a city that was hostile towards them because it would lead to violence. Randolph did not back down since he felt the violence would be at the hands of racist whites. On July 25, 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in the defense industry and leading to the development of the Fair Employment Practices Committee (Simkin, 1997). This action led to the cancellation of the march on Washington D.C.
Although successful in his political battle with President Roosevelt, some felt that Randolph had in essence sold out since there was no legislation put in place to enforce Executive Order 8802. Others felt that he should not have agreed to cancel the march since it could have also helped to correct other injustices faced by African Americans. Therefore, in 1948, Randolph informed a congressional committee that he would advise American youth, black and white, to boycott any draft until the U.S. Armed Forces were integrated. Randolph found it hypocritical that the government could allow segregation in its own ranks but had forced the private sector into integration. President Harry S. Truman, like President Roosevelt before him, was reluctant to accede to Randolph. However, on July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 abolishing racial segregation in the armed forces. His decision was based on a heated reelection campaign and wanting to use civil rights to appeal to northern urban voters.
Randolph would finally see a march on Washington D.C. in 1963 when he orchestrated the August 28, 1963 March on Washington during which revered civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. During the March, Randolph was charged with introducing Dr. King to the thousands in attendance. The introduction became symbolic of the passing of the torch in the civil rights crusade from one pioneer to the next. In the New York Times, Randolph wrote “The objective of Aug. 28 was more than civil rights legislation. The full march was a challenge to the conscience of the country; it was a creative dialogue between Negroes and their white allies, on the one hand, and the President, the Congress and our American democratic society, on the other. Its aim was to achieve a national consensus not only for civil rights legislation, but for its implementation” (Randolph, 1963).
Asa Philip Randolph died May 16, 1979. His struggles for unionization and civil rights significantly enhanced the development of democracy and equality in America. He always said that his inspiration came from his father. “We never felt that we were inferior to any white boys…” Randolph said. We were told constantly and continuously that “you are as able, you are as competent, and you have as much intellectuality as any individual” (Anderson, 1986). That encouragement equipped Randolph with the tools necessary to rock the foundations of racial segregation, while applying uncommon and unwanted pressure on presidents and corporations alike to recognize the need to remedy the injustices heaped on African Americans. For his significant and ground-breaking contributions to racial and economic equality he will forever be known as not just a pioneer but as “the most powerful Negro in America” and “Saint Philip.”


Ebony, May 1969; February 1977.
New Republic, July 6, 1963.
New York Review of Books, November 22, 1990.
New York Times, September 29, 1963.
Anderson, Jervis. A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
"Randolph, A. Philip." American Home Front in World War II. 2005. Retrieved March 06, 2012 from Simkin, John (2007, Sept), “Asa Philip Randolph: Biography”,…...

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