|Notes on "A. Philip Randolph: Labor Leader at Large" by Benjamin
A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979)
Overview of Career:
- He articulated the radical socialist critique of
both Washington's accommodationist ideology and
DuBois' legal struggle for civil rights (voting
rights, anti-discrimination, equal education)
- He believed that the solution for the race's
problem was to seek an alliance with the white
working class and assert social rights (right to a
job which pays a living wage, right to decent
housing and medical care, right to an old age
pension) through labor activism.
- As the editor of
The Messenger, a New
York City socialist publication, Randolph initially
gained prominence due to his strident editorials
opposing black soldiers fighting in WWI and
criticizing President Wilson as a tool of the
capitalist powers which had initiated the war.
- During the 1920's Randolph rallied the Pullman
Sleeping Car Porters to form their own union to
demand better pay and better working hours.
- After succeeding in organizing the first black
union to be recognized nationally, he went on to
criticize the major trade union organizations for
excluding black workers.
- Randolph achieved national prominence by
organizing a mass March On Washington in 1941 to
pressure FDR into ending discrimination against
blacks in federal jobs and in major corporations
which do business for the government (particularly,
the defense industry.) FDR gave in and ordered the
desegregation of federal government jobs in
Executive Order 8802. (but not the military)
- During the 1940's he helped to organize CORE,
the civil rights group which pioneered peaceful
civil disobedience: sit-ins and marches imitating
Ghandi's successful campaigns in India.
- Randolph crowned his career by organizing the
historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in
- opposition to WWI, "a war caused by the
machinations of capitalists and hence of little
concern to workers.
- In The Messenger he called on blacks to resist
the draft and focus instead on fighting for their
rights at home..
- In The Messenger, he argued that the black
worker had been lulled into a false sense of
security by Booker Washington's accommodationist
approach and the NAACP's gradualist approach to
change. He called for bold socialist leadership:
direct action to organize unions for black workers
and organize rent strikes against inflated prices in
the black belts of northern cities.
- He stridently criticized President Wilson during
the war, referring to him as a capitalist stooge and
a bigot. He was denounced in Congress as a
"Bolshevik" and was investigated by J. Edgar Hoover
for his connections to the Communist Party. (Hoover
would soon become the head of the new FBI which was
brought into being to fight organized crime and to
contain the American Communist Party.)
- As an organizer of black workers, Randolph
agitated among hotel workers, elevator operators,
switchboard operators and waiters. He attempted to
from inter-racial unions.
- He called on black voters to reject both major
political parties, and in 1920 he ran for State
Comptroller of New York on the Socialist ticket.
However, in 1925 Randolph denounced the American
Negro Labor Congress because it was run by Moscow.
Organizing The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
- In August 1925 Randolph became the 'general
organizer' for the
Sleeping Car Porters. He induced induce them to sign up for the
union and then he planned to force the Pullman
Company to recognize this union as the workers'
legitimate representative in collective bargaining
negotiations for a new contract.
- The porters sought higher wages (they lived
mostly on tips). They also had to purchase their own
uniforms and pay for their cleaning. They had to pay
for all meals on the job, and they had to work 400
hours a month (compared to an average of 240 for
typical railroad employees.)
- The Pullman Company opposed the formation of
this union and used coercive methods to prevent it
from coming into being: a company union, harassment
and firing of anyone perceived to be a union
organizer, threatening to fire all blacks and
replace them with Asian immigrant workers.
- Black intellectuals and professionals were also
cool to union organization (fearing to alienate
wealthy philanthropists). These middle class leaders
also looked down on black workers.
- Randolph's successful organization of the union
depended on persistence, discipline and luck. He
used The Messenger to criticize middle class
black leaders who he claimed were 'bought and sold'
by management. He gained the support of the NAACP
and the endorsement of key black business
associations. He also preached the gospel of work to
the porters themselves. Their movement could only
succeed if they modeled superb skills while on the
job: "independence without insolence, courtesy
without fawning, and service without servility."
- The fight to organize the union went on for
twelve years until Randolph received a key assist
from the federal government. In 1934 during the New
Deal FDR and Congress passed the Railway Labor Act
which outlawed company unions and granted employees
the right to organize without company interference.
- In 1937 the Pullman Company capitulated and
recognized the Porters' union, which negotiated a
new contract for shorter hours and higher wages.
- With this victory Randolph could then press the
large trade unions, like the AFL, to recognize them
and drop the color line barring blacks from joining
other trade unions.
1941 March on Washington
- To end discrimination against black workers in
federal government jobs, Randolph organized a march
on Washington during 1941. Randolph also protested
discrimination against blacks in armed forces and
defense industries. America was preparing for war
against Germany and Japan, and Randolph demanded
that the country live up to its principles of
liberty and justice not only in the fight against
fascism but at home.
- FDR called a White House conference to meet with
Randolph and the other march organizers, and after
recognizing the strength of their preparation and
resolve, FDR issued
Executive Order 8802 which
forbid discrimination by race, creed, color or
national origin in government hiring practices. (FDR
did not go so far as to end segregation against
blacks in the US Armed forces.)
- To enforce this directive, Congress established
the Committee on Fair Employment Practices (FEPC):
the first time the federal government had assumed a
key role in the elimination of Jim Crow practices.
This move established an essential legal precedent:
discrimination denies a civil right protected by the
- Typically, Randolph was not satisfied. He
continued to pressure the government and threaten
mass protests until 1948 when Harry Truman issued
Executive Order 9981 which finally banned
discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces
Randolph Embraces Non-Violence
|Influenced by his pacifist assistant Bayard Rustin,
Randolph embraced Gandhi's approach to non-violent civil
He helped organize the Congress on Racial Equality
(CORE) in 1942, the organization which developed the
non-violent sit-in techniques that would prove so
effective in breaking segregation in public facilities.
1963 March On Washington
|Randolph's long career culminated with the historic
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. It was
originally intended to be a march protesting black
unemployment, but Randolph expanded its scope to include
the civil rights organizations demonstrating for voting
rights and the end to segregation in the South. Randolph gave the
keynote address on the afternoon that Martin Luther King
delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.