Randolph, Asa Philip

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Randolph, Asa Philip

April 15, 1889
May 16, 1979

The labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph was the younger son of James William Randolph, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was born in Crescent City, Florida, and raised in Jacksonville. In 1911, after graduating from the Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, the twenty-two-year-old Randolph migrated to New York City and settled in Harlem, then in an early stage of its development as the "Negro capital of the world." While working at odd jobs to support himself, he attended the City College of New York (CCNY, adjoining Harlem), where he took courses in history, philosophy, economics, and political science. During his enrollment at CCNY, he also became active in the Socialist Party, whose leader, Eugene Debs, was one of his political heroes.

The Harlem Radicals

Between 1914 and the early 1920s, Randolph belonged to a group of young African-American militants in New York, called the Harlem radicals, who regarded themselves as the New Negro political avant-garde in American life. Some of them, including Randolph, combined race radicalism with socialism. Others, such as Marcus Garvey, who arrived in Harlem in 1916, emphasized a black nationalism that was oriented toward Africathey were averse to movements that advocated social reform or racial integration within the mainstream of American society. But all Harlem radicals defied the established African-American leadership, even though it included so distinguished a member as W. E. B. Du Bois.

To race radicalism and socialism, Randolph soon added an interest in trade unionism, which was to form a basic part of his approach to the struggle for black progress. In 1917, he and his closest socialist comrade in Harlem, Chandler Owen, founded and began coediting The Messenger, a monthly journal that carried the subtitle "The Only Radical Magazine Published by Negroes." The Messenger campaigned against lynching in the South; opposed America's participation in World War I; counseled African Americans to resist the military draft; proposed an economic solution to the "Negro problem"; and urged blacks to ally themselves with the socialist and trade-union movements. For its irreverent editorial stands, The Messenger came under the close surveillance of the federal government. In 1918 Postmaster General Albert Burleson revoked the magazine's second-class mailing privileges, and in 1919 a Justice Department report ordered by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer described The Messenger as "by long odds the most able and most dangerous of the Negro publications."

In 1917 Randolph also helped organize the Socialist Party's first black political club in New York, located in Harlem's Twenty-first Assembly District. In 1920, the party recognized his growing importance as a spokesperson by naming him its candidate for New York State comptroller, one of the highest positions for which a black socialist had run. He lost the election but polled an impressive 202,361 votes, about a thousand fewer than Eugene

Debs polled in New York State that year as the Socialist Party's candidate for president.

In the early 1920s, Randolph began dissolving his formal ties to the party when it became clear to him that the black masses were not as responsive to the socialist message as he had hoped. This was partly because of their traditional distrust for ideologies they deemed to be un-American; partly because black nationalism was, emotionally and psychologically, more appealing to them; and partly because the Socialist Party failed to address the special problems of black exclusion from the trade-union movement. But despite his retirement from formal party activities, Randolph continued to consider himself a democratic socialist.

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

In 1925 a delegation of Pullman porters approached him with a request that he organize their work force into a legitimate labor union, independent of employer participation and influence. Randolph undertook the taska decision that launched his career as a national leader in the fields of labor and civil rights. But establishing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was a far more difficult task than he had anticipated. The Pullman Company had crushed a number of earlier efforts to organize its porters, and for the next twelve years it remained contemptuous of Randolph's. Not until 1937, after Congress had passed enabling labor legislation, did the Pullman executives recognize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as a certified bargaining agent.

This victory gained the brotherhood full membership in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It also gave Randolphas the brotherhood's chief delegate to annual AFL conventionsan opportunity to answer intellectuals in Harlem who criticized him for urging blacks to ally themselves with the trade-union movement. The black intelligentsia generally regarded the AFL as a racist institution, most of whose craft unions barred nonwhite membership. How, then (his critics argued), could Randolph call on blacks to invest their economic aspirations in organized labor? Randolph maintained that trade unionism was the main engine of economic advancement for the working class, the class to which a majority of the black population belonged. He believed that achieving the political rights for which all blacks were struggling would be meaningless without comparable economic gains.

Throughout his tenure as a delegate to the annual conventions of organized labor (in 1955 he became a vice president of the merged American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizationsthe AFL-CIO), Randolph campaigned relentlessly against unions that excluded black workers. When he retired as a vice president in 1968, the AFL-CIO had become the most integrated public institution in American life, although pockets of resistance remained. Randolph was not the sole instrument of that revolution, but he was its opening wedge, and much of the change was due to his unyielding agitation.

Civil Rights Leadership

The brotherhood's victory in 1937 also inaugurated Randolph's career as a national civil rights leader; he emerged from the struggle with Pullman as one of the more respected figures in black America. In 1937 the recently formed National Negro Congress (NNC), recognizing Randolph's potential as a mass leader, invited him to be its president. Randolph saw the NNC as a potential mass movement, and he accepted. But he resigned the NNC's presidency in 1940, when he discovered that much of the organization had come under communist control. He was a resolute anticommunist for the rest of his life. He wrote to a colleague in 1959, "They [communists] are not only undemocratic but anti-democratic. They are opposed to our concept of the dignity of the human personality, the heritage of the Judeo-Christian philosophy, and hence they represent a totalitarian system in which civil liberties cannot live."

Randolph's withdrawal from the NNC freed him to organize, early in 1941, the March on Washington Movement, based on the Gandhian method of nonviolent direct action. It achieved its first major victory in June 1941. Faced with Randolph's threat to lead a massive invasion of the nation's capital, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order banning the exclusion of blacks from employment in defense plantsthe federal government's earliest commitment to the policy of fair employment. That breakthrough brought Randolph to the forefront of black mass leadership, making him "the towering civil rights figure of the period," according to James Farmer, one of his younger admirers. The March on Washington Movement disintegrated by the end of the 1940s, but by then Randolph had secured another historic executive orderthis one from President Harry S. Truman, in 1948, outlawing segregation in the armed services. Scholars were to see his movement as one of the most remarkable in American history. Aspects of its influence went into the formation of Farmer's Congress of Racial Equality (CORE; 1942) and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957), both of which helped lead the great nonviolent protest movement of the 1960s.

Randolph was the elder statesman of that movement, a unifying center of the civil rights coalition that composed it. His collaboration with its various leaders culminated in the 1963 March on Washington, the largest demonstration for racial redress in the nation's history. Randolph had conceived that event, and it is appropriate that he should have called it a March for Jobs and Freedom; it represented his two-pronged approach, political and economic, to the black struggle.

A. Philip Randolph

"As to the compositions of our movement. Our policy is that it be all-Negro, and pro-Negro but not anti-white, or anti-Semitic or anti-labor or anti-Catholic. The reason for this policy is that all oppressed people must assume the responsibility and take the initiative to free themselves."

keynote address to the policy conference of the march on washington movement, meeting in detroit, michigan, september 26, 1942. reprinted in john bracey, august meier, and elliott rudwick, eds. black nationalism in america. indianapolis: bobbs-merill, 1970, p. 391.

After 1963, Randolph the architect of black mass pressure on the federal government faded gradually from the scene. In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. He spent the remaining years of his active life chiefly as a vice president of the AFL-CIO. He died in 1979, at the age of ninety.

See also Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Du Bois, W. E. B.; Garvey, Marcus; Labor and Labor Unions; Messenger, The ; National Negro Congress; New Negro; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)


Anderson, Jarvis. A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Brazeal, Brailsford R. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters: Its Origin and Development. New York: Harcourt and Brothers, 1946.

Miller, Calvin Craig. A. Philip Randolph and the African American Labor Movement. Greensboro, N.C.: Morgan Reynolds, 2005.

Patterson, Lillie. A. Philip Randolph: Messenger for the Masses. New York: Facts on File, 1996.

Pfeffer, Paula F. A. Philip Randolph: Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

jervis anderson (1996)
Updated bibliography

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