Randolph, Asa Philip (15 Apr. 1889-16 May 1979) , founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and civil rights leader, was born in Crescent City, Florida, the son of James William Randolph, an itinerant African Methodist Episcopal preacher, and Elizabeth Robinson. The family placed great stress on education. Thus Randolph, an honor student, was sent to Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida (later Bethune-Cookman College). Although greatly influenced by his father's political and racial attitudes, Randolph resisted pressure to enter the ministry and later became an atheist. Upon graduation from Cookman, in 1907, he found himself barred by racial prejudice from all but manual labor jobs in the South, and so in 1911 he moved to New York City, where he worked at odd jobs during the day and took social science courses at City College at night.
The radical ideologies advocated by the Socialists and the Industrial Workers of the World, then at their peak of influence, helped form his philosophy. He met Chandler Owen , a student at Columbia Law School, and the pair worked out a synthesis based on Marxian economic ideas and the sociological theories of Lester Frank Ward : men could be truly free only if they were not subject to economic deprivation. Randolph and Owen joined the Socialist party and became soapbox orators propagandizing for black unionism. They opened an employment office in Harlem, began a training program for migrants arriving from the South, and tried, unsuccessfully, to organize black workers into unions. In 1913 Randolph married Lucille Campbell Green, a widow six years older than himself whom he had met while acting in Shakespearean plays for a Harlem theater group. (The couple did not have children.) The theater training accounted for Randolph's Oxford accent and helped him hone his public speaking technique, while Lucille Randolph's earnings as a hairdresser and beauty shop owner supported his subsequent undertakings.
In 1917 Randolph and Owen began publishing the Messenger magazine with the slogan the "only magazine of scientific radicalism in the world published by Negroes." Although they were pacifists and were briefly jailed for their opposition to the First World War, the partners concluded that only force, economic or physical, could secure full citizenship rights for African Americans. They argued that only through socialism and labor organization could the race be upgraded economically. For expressing such sentiments, the Department of Justice labeled the Messenger "the most able and the most dangerous of all the Negro publications." Later, as the Messenger began publishing the work of young black poets and authors, a critic called it "one of the most brilliantly edited magazines in the history of Negro journalism."
Hoping to capitalize on the increased African-American vote resulting from the great migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North, in 1920 Randolph, his wife, and Owen all ran for office on the Socialist ticket. The majority of African Americans remained unimpressed by socialism, however, and none of the three was elected. Nevertheless, Randolph and Owen started a variety of groups, such as the Friends of Negro Freedom, to draw African Americans into the labor movement. None was particularly successful, perhaps because they vacillated between integrating their organizations and making them racially exclusive.
Randolph's intellectual clique became a victim of the postwar fear of radicalism that developed partly in response to the Bolshevik Revolution. Government repression of both black and white radicals ensued. In addition, the editorial staff of the Messenger became deeply divided by three major disagreements in the early 1920s. The issues--support for Marcus Garvey and his Back-to-Africa movement, the ever-widening gulf between West Indian and American blacks, and the rupture of the Socialist party over the Bolshevik Revolution--were interrelated. Garvey's advocacy of racial separatism conflicted with Randolph's promotion of working-class solidarity across racial lines. Because Garvey came from Jamaica, this rift degenerated into a West Indian versus African-American controversy, especially when Randolph and Owen mounted a "Garvey Must Go" campaign in an effort to have him deported. In 1919 most West Indian radicals went into the new Communist party, while most American blacks remained with Randolph's socialist faction; but because of the party's factional infighting, socialist financial support for the Messenger declined. These ideological wars made Randolph a confirmed anticommunist.
Randolph began writing for more moderate journals like Opportunity and in 1925 was invited to organize the Pullman porters. Because they had steady jobs and traveled the country, the porters were considered the elite of black labor. Yet since they were not unionized, they typified the large segment of exploited and underpaid black employees. As the one occupation where African Americans held a near monopoly, the porters offered possibilities for labor organization that Randolph's previous targets had not, and because Randolph was not employed by Pullman, the company could not fire him. The Messenger meanwhile became the official organ of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP).
Seizing on their complaints of onerous work rules, Randolph educated the porters about the value of collective bargaining and trade unionism, giving them a keener appreciation of their unstable economic position as workers. Realizing that the strength of the union ultimately depended on its ability to correct grievances and provide job security, Randolph believed nonetheless that the primary issue was color. Pullman had previously dealt with labor unions, but to sit down and bargain with African Americans was a concept the company was not ready to accept. Amazingly, the brotherhood enrolled 51 percent of the porters within a year. Pullman, consequently, attempted to undermine the union with a series of retaliatory measures including frame-ups, beatings, and firings.
The failure of his efforts to obtain mediation under the 1926 Watson-Parker Railway Labor Act and his attack on the tipping system before the Interstate Commerce Commission forced Randolph into calling a strike in 1928; but striking went against the tradition of black labor. African Americans were accustomed to finding jobs as strikebreakers, and they were afraid that other blacks would be eager to take what was considered to be the plush job of a Pullman porter. In response to rumors that Pullman had nearly 5,000 Filipinos ready to take the places of brotherhood members, William Green , head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), persuaded Randolph to postpone the strike. Membership in the union then dropped by half, publication of the Messenger ceased, and the telephone and electricity at the brotherhood's headquarters were disconnected for lack of funds.
Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt 's New Deal, Section 7A of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 guaranteed labor the right to organize and select bargaining representatives without interference from the employer. As a result, membership in the BSCP increased. Aided by its new organ, the Black Worker , and William Green's conviction that the brotherhood acted as a barrier to Communist penetration into African-American labor, the BSCP received a charter from the AFL in 1935. Finally, on 25 August 1937 the Pullman Company signed a contract with the nation's first black union. A personal triumph for Randolph, the agreement brought an extra $2 million a year to the porters and their families as well as greater job security and the ability to bargain collectively for better working conditions.
The victory over Pullman gave Randolph enormous prestige in both the black and the white communities. In addition, Randolph courted journalists, thereby assuring that the brotherhood received publicity far out of proportion to its size. Over time, as Randolph used the BSCP for the foundation of all his civil rights organizations, the union came to wield influence much greater than its membership warranted.
To Randolph the brotherhood represented more than an instrument of service to the porters and a tool to wage a nationwide struggle to gain equality for African Americans. He also utilized it to stimulate black participation in unions and to fight discrimination in organized labor. Through the Black Worker , Randolph inculcated the porters with such middle-class values as abstaining from alcohol, owning their own homes, and sending their children to college as well as the necessity of supporting his civil rights activities.
By organizing and winning recognition for the BSCP, Randolph developed a loyal following. Known among African Americans as "Mr. Black Labor" and "St. Philip of the Pullman Porters," Randolph also achieved recognition in the white press and became a prominent African-American spokesman in the public arena. He was appointed a member of the New York City Commission on Race, for example, and, in 1935, president of the National Negro Congress (NNC), an umbrella organization to help African Americans cope with the economic distress of the depression. The NNC unfortunately was soon rent by factional infighting, and Randolph resigned in 1940, charging the organization with Communist domination.
By the 1940s, defense preparations were pulling the country out of the depression, but blacks, denied defense jobs because of racial discrimination, remained on the relief rolls in inordinate numbers. When the Roosevelt administration proved impervious to their entreaties, Randolph, influenced by the sit-down techniques of the labor movement and Gandhian nonviolent tactics, conceived the idea of a march of African Americans on Washington to demand jobs and an end to segregation in the military. Fearing a black invasion of segregated Washington and realizing that without some tangible concessions he could not persuade Randolph to call off the march, the president issued Executive Order #8802 creating a temporary wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). Although the order did not include military integration, Randolph agreed to call off the march primarily because he was uncertain how many would actually march. Nevertheless, elated at the success of his strategy of mass nonviolent civil disobedience, Randolph decided to keep his organization, the March On Washington Movement (MOWM), intact to continue the fight for civil rights. The MOWM mounted a series of spectacular rallies in major cities in the summer of 1942 demanding racial equality.
Randolph declined a position on the FEPC and, in 1944, also refused to run for Congress. He chose instead to work for permanent fair employment practices legislation and to this end founded the National Council for a Permanent FEPC. Unlike the racially exclusive MOWM, the National Council was an integrated organization. It brought Randolph further notoriety but failed to achieve its legislative objectives.
When the Cold War caused President Harry S. Truman to ask Congress for a peacetime draft law, Randolph refocused his attention on integration of the military. He counseled young African-American men to refuse to register and be drafted into a segregated military establishment. In July 1948 the politically vulnerable Truman, needing the black vote for his close reelection race, capitulated to Randolph's nonviolent civil disobedience campaign and issued Executive Order #9981 integrating the United States military. Under continual pressure from Randolph's Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, the military went from the most segregated to the most successfully integrated institution in the nation, demonstrating once again the effectiveness of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Randolph's philosophy had a direct influence on the midcentury civil rights movement. After the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education , the Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized by porter E. D. Nixon , who had been imbued with Randolph's nonviolent egalitarian ideas. It was Nixon who tapped Martin Luther King, Jr. , for leadership of the boycott. When southern school districts used delaying tactics to avoid implementing the school desegregation decision, Randolph mounted a Prayer Pilgrimage in 1957 that brought King wider media exposure. He then sponsored a pair of Youth Marches for Integrated Schools in 1958 and 1959 in the nation's capital. Unlike Randolph's proposed march of 1941, these marches were integrated demonstrations supported by black civil rights groups, white liberals, black and white church groups, and some trade unions. For the day-to-day organizing of the marches, Randolph teamed up with Bayard Rustin , who became his protégé.
Still vacillating between integration and separatism, in 1959, the same year he led the second march for integrated schools, Randolph also launched the all-black Negro American Labor Council (NALC) to fight racism within the labor movement. When the AFL merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 1955, Randolph became one of the federation's two African-American vice presidents. Largely through his efforts, the combined federation committed itself to a policy of backing racial integration with financial contributions. Randolph, however, had always been ambivalent about accepting white assistance, arguing that "where you get your money you also get your ideas and control." He soon concluded that financial support alone was insufficient; the AFL-CIO was not doing enough to cleanse itself of racial discrimination. George Meany , then head of the AFL-CIO, remained unsympathetic, however, demanding of Randolph, "Who the hell appointed you as the guardian of all the Negroes in America?" Both because young African-American unionists did not think that the NALC was militant enough and because Meany resented the organization as a separatist movement, it never had the impact on federation racial practices that Randolph had projected for it.
To counter the lack of African-American economic progress, in his capacity as head of the NALC, Randolph proposed a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The march came after the nonviolent sit-in movement, under the leadership of the Congress of Racial Equality and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had spread across the South. At the same time, some blacks, especially youths outside of the movement, began responding to police brutality with violence, igniting demonstrations across the country and provoking white counterviolence. The older race betterment organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, also found themselves contending for prestige and financial contributions with more activist groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality. Nevertheless, all the groups worked together for the March on Washington. The integrated march, coordinated by Bayard Rustin, was far less militant than Randolph's original 1941 conception. Still, the 250,000 marchers, about a third of whom were white, proved the efficacy of Randolph's coalition approach. Although marred for Randolph by the death of his wife three months earlier, the march marked a high point of the civil rights movement. It did not, however, produce any immediate, tangible achievements, and the coalition quickly dissolved amid struggles over Black Power and racial separatism.
Randolph earned the wrath of more militant African-American groups when he signed the Moratorium on Demonstrations, the purpose of which was to ensure the reelection of Lyndon B. Johnson to the presidency in 1964. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, young people risked their lives in Mississippi to register African Americans to vote and, with local black activists, forged the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party as a challenge to the all-white state delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Further antagonism ensued when Randolph, along with Bayard Rustin, supported Johnson's compromise of allowing only two delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party to be seated at the convention.
Also in 1964 Randolph founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute to carry on his ideas and methods. The objective of the institute was to promote Randolph's unique vision by strengthening ties between the labor movement, civil rights groups, and other progressive organizations. Through the institute Randolph announced his Freedom Budget for All Americans in 1965. A kind of domestic Marshall Plan, the budget called for a national expenditure of $18.5 billion a year over a ten-year period to implement its proposed solution to the economic problems of African Americans. The budget was based on the thesis that the only way to abolish poverty was to create full employment. By then, however, the country was deeply involved in the Vietnam War, and neither Congress nor the administration was interested in the wholesale budgetary and social changes that Randolph's plan would have entailed.
His health failing, in 1968 Randolph retired as president of the BSCP and vice president of the AFL-CIO executive council. In 1978 his beloved union, which had supplied the core constituency for all of his civil rights organizations, was absorbed into the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks. Though they had softened, Randolph's ideas and his rhetoric had not basically changed over the years. Yet the historical circumstances within which he operated had altered most significantly. The interracial class coalition that he endeavored to put together, along with his support of the Democratic party leadership, and his backing of the teachers' union in the New York City Teachers' Strike in 1968, caused black observers of the 1960s and 1970s to perceive Randolph as favoring the interests of organized labor over those of the African-American community. Although held in disdain by Black Power advocates at the time, within a decade of his death Randolph came to be regarded as a legendary African-American leader. His career demonstrated that blacks were not merely acted upon in an oppressive society; to a large extent they determined their own destiny. "Rather we die standing on our feet fighting for our rights than to exist upon our knees begging for life," Randolph proclaimed. His virulent anticommunism contributed to Randolph's vacillation between integration and racial exclusivity. Always fearful that the inclusion of whites would bring communist subversion, and wary that the tendency of whites to take over the leadership of interracial organizations retarded the development of black self-esteem, Randolph nevertheless believed in black nationalism merely as a short-term tactic to achieve the long-term goal of integration. He never wavered, however, in his belief that economics held the key to African-American equality.
A man of integrity, Randolph inspired great loyalty among his colleagues, black and white. Unique in that he made his reputation as a labor leader rather than by following the more traditional path to African-American leadership through the clergy, education, or organizational bureaucracy, Randolph attempted to establish a symbiotic relationship between the American labor movement and the cause of civil rights. His most enduring legacy, however, was the influence that his movements, ideology, and tactics had on the younger generation of civil rights leaders. They imbibed Randolph's strategy of nonviolent, mass civil disobedience and put it into practice.
Randolph's "Reminiscences" were recorded by the Columbia Oral History Research Office. The Chicago Historical Society has the papers of the Chicago Division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as well as some material on Randolph's other activities. A smaller collection of brotherhood papers, along with Randolph's private papers, are at the Library of Congress. Much information on his civil rights work can be gleaned from the papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, both at the Library of Congress. The best sources for Randolph's own writings are the Messenger and the Black Worker . He also contributed articles to Crisis, Opportunity , and American Federationist through the years. Jervis Anderson wrote A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait (1973). Paula F. Pfeffer analyzed his civil rights activity in A. Philip Randolph: Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (1990). Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., treated the Messenger in No Crystal Stair: Black Life and the Messenger, 1917-1928 (1975). There are several books on the porters' union: Brailsford Reese Brazeal, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters: Its Origin and Development (1946); William H. Harris, Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925-37 (1977); Jack Santino, Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: Stories of Black Pullman Porters (1989); and Joseph F. Wilson, Tearing Down the Color Bar: A Documentary History and Analysis of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1989). An obituary is in the New York Times , 18 May 1979.
Paula F. Pfeffer
Paula F. Pfeffer. " Randolph, Asa Philip ";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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