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A. Philip Randolph
A. Philip Randolph A. Philip Randolph


Throughout his 90 years, labor and civil rights leader A Philip Randolph rocked the foundations of racial segregation, pressuring presidents and corporations alike to recognize and remedy the injustices heaped on American blacks Embracing a nonviolent, forward-looking activism, Randolph garnered both praise and catcalls from those within and without the progressive movements he championed; he was alternately labeled a radical, a subversive, "the most dangerous Negro in America," and "Saint Philip" Though his methods for forcing change in racist laws and labor conditions were frequently questioned, Randolph's generous, incorruptible character was never second-guessed Asa Philip Randolph was born April 15, 1889, to a poor family in Crescent City, Florida His father, a bookish tailor and itinerant minister, wanted him to enter the clergy, but young Randolph, who read the works of German political philosopher and Communist Manifesto author Karl Marx while other children were pouring over Alice in Wonderland, was set on bigger challenges; he thought about becoming a congressman or lawyer--someone in a position of power and authority who could fight for the rights of blacks After graduating from high school, he went to New York City, attracted by the ideas of educator and social theorist W E B Du Bois, who had written about the need for talented blacks to excel and set an example Randolph's socialist leanings were cemented while he worked odd jobs and took classes at City College He met Chandler Owen, a young Columbia University law student who shared his intellectual interests and ideological convictions, and the two started a small employment bureau for largely untrained blacks arriving in the city from the South Randolph and Owen began a publication, The Hotel Messenger, to serve as a mouthpiece for a fledgling union of black head waiters.

But the young intellectuals, who used the paper to discuss wide-ranging issues of black suffrage, were too radical, too impolitic, for the waiters union, and the relationship soon ended The paper, in its new incarnation as The Messenger, continued, however, to provide a forum for Randolph and Owen, who argued in its pages against US involvement in World War I and advised blacks around the country to arm themselves against white mob violence The US Attorney at the time, wary of such militancy, reportedly called Randolph "the most dangerous Negro in America" Randolph and Owen failed in their early attempts to organize other black labor forces in New York City It wasn't until 1925, after the two had parted company, that Randolph was called upon to unionize the sleeping-car porters of the Pullman Railroad Company, who had heard and read his eloquent demands for racial justice The Pullman Company, then the largest employer of blacks in the country, had since 1909 successfully squelched the attempts of its porters to organize The company summarily fired those porters who tried to rally their co-workers to support increases in pay and better working conditions The porters saw in Randolph a brilliant leader who, as an outsider, would not collapse under corporate pressure Randolph recognized the difficulty of persuading blacks in the company--and throughout the country--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 Randolph also had to contend with the general impression among blacks that porters had a good life, traveling to exotic places around the United States and hobnobbing with the wealthy, albeit in the role of waiter or shoe-shiner.

In his negotiations with Pullman Company executives--all of whom embraced the precepts of racial segregation--Randolph remained composed and cordial, using his quiet dignity to disarm those who used derogatory terms like "nigger" and "darkie" New Republic contributor Murray Kempton wrote of Randolph in 1963, "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" After ten years of discussion and a $10,000 bribe--which Randolph rejected--the Pullman Company caved in, sanctioning the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union in the country, and giving its members $2 million in wage increases Randolph, who would become known as "Saint Philip of the Pullman Porters," continued to rise through the ranks of organized labor, founding the Negro American Labor Council and becoming the first black vice-president of the powerful American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the United States Underlying his passion for labor rights was a conviction that equality for blacks could only be achieved if economic opportunity did not fall along racial lines; as long as blacks were kept in menial jobs, unable to tap into advancing technology, Randolph believed, they would forever be treated as second-class citizens, relegated to the back of buses and restaurants Throughout his life, Randolph pursued economic egalitarianism through a process of coalition-building and working from the inside, which occasionally angered black militants who thought he should have been less conciliatory He disagreed with black leaders, including Jamaican black- nationalist Marcus Garvey, who saw it as futile for blacks to attempt to rise above their hardship in the United States and advocated that they return to Africa, the land of their ancestors Randolph was quoted as saying in Ebony magazine in 1969, "The idea of separatism is harkening to the past and it is undesirable even if it could be realized, because the progress of mankind has been based upon contact and association, upon social, intellectual and cultural contact" Randolph, whose legend was sealed with his victory at the Pullman Company, began looking out at the nation for other areas, other industries, in which blacks were locked out of economic parity and therefore deprived of justice In 1940 he found his rallying point in the discrimination practiced in private defense plants and the segregation of the US Armed Forces.

The issue was particularly acute because the United States was viewing with growing alarm the activities of German leader Adolf Hitler's war machine in Europe Ebony contributor Lerone Bennett, Jr, wrote in 1977, "The total mobilization required by the racist nazi ideology focused renewed interest on the racist American ideology and unleashed explosive forces in the black community, where preachers, politicians, and pamphleteers announced that blacks were sick and tired of dying abroad for a freedom that had no reality at home" President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, aware of Randolph's prominence, nonetheless hedged when the labor leader asked that this discrimination be stopped Acknowledging that friendly requests and congenial meetings would never work on their own, Randolph hatched the idea of leading a protest march of 10,000 blacks in Washington, DC, a city still in the grips of segregation At first, newspapers and civic leaders questioned whether Randolph--or anyone--could assemble so many blacks for such a demonstration But the march idea caught on, and eventually Randolph raised the stakes to President Roosevelt by saying that 50,000 blacks were to come, and then 100,000 As acceptance of Randolph's project grew, so did criticism The harshest words came from those who argued that in excluding whites from his March On Washington Committee, Randolph 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" President Roosevelt knew the criticism challenging Randolph was minor relative to the excitement surrounding the upcoming march He sent some of his biggest liberal guns, including his wife Eleanor, to convince Randolph that an "invasion" of so many blacks into a city inhospitable--even hostile--to them would be a mistake that could lead to violence But Randolph did not back down, saying that if there were violence, it would be at the hands of racist whites July 25, 1941, less than a week before the scheduled demonstration, Roosevelt issued his historic Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in the defense industry and led to the Fair Employment Practices Committee Randolph was praised for having successfully played hardball with the country's premier politician But while leaders around the nation saw the importance of Roosevelt's executive order, many of them--even those within Randolph's Committee--decried the fact that the president had not provided adequate means of enforcing it They called Randolph a sell-out when he agreed to cancel the march--he said it was a postponement--in exchange for the order They also claimed there were many other injustices that the march would have helped expose and perhaps remedy.

Randolph's next presidential sparring match began where his bout with Roosevelt had left off In 1948 he told a congressional committee that he would advise the youth of America--black and white--to boycott any draft until the US Armed Forces were integrated Although one senator warned that such advice could amount to treason, Randolph proclaimed that he would oppose a "Jim Crow [a system of laws and customs in the South that segregated blacks from white society]" Army until he rotted in jail Randolph found it hypocritical that the government condoned segregation in its own ranks--including the armed forces--while Roosevelt's order had effectively forced private industry to integrate President Harry Truman was, like Roosevelt before him, reluctant to accede to Randolph But he finally gave in because he was in the middle of a heated reelection campaign and wanted to use civil rights to appeal to northern urban voters Fifteen years later, Randolph reaffirmed his commitment to civil rights by setting into motion a march that actually did materialize Like his predecessors, President John F Kennedy worried that bringing thousands of blacks to Washington would lead to violence Randolph, with the same measured arguments he had used time and time again, was able not only to allay the president's concerns but also to get his endorsement.

The historic 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, succeeded in coalescing and electrifying the civil rights movement "The objective of Aug 28 was more than civil rights legislation," Randolph wrote in the New York Times "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" Throughout the 1960s, the status of Randolph as a champion of labor and civil rights was obscured by the emergence of younger, more dynamic firebrands Still, King, who had been recruited into the civil rights movement by one of Randolph's proteges, referred to the inveterate activist as "the Chief" Even Malcolm X, the militant Muslim crusader who dismissed nonviolence as a weak response to racism, gave Randolph a back-handed compliment by saying he was the least confused among black leaders In 1969, Randolph, a confirmed pacifist, was quoted in Ebony as saying "I love the young black militants.

I don't agree with all their methodology, and yet I can understand why they are in this mood of revolt, of resort to violence, for I was a young black militant myself, the angry young man of my day" Randolph died in 1979, a beloved, yet displaced, "emeritus" leader Bayard Rustin, Randolph's friend and disciple, wrote in the Yale Review in 1987: "He was imperturbable and implacable in his single-minded commitment to his ideals and principles He was a self-made gentleman and a prudent tactician with the grit and toughness of a boxer Mr Randolph was a man of quiet courage, of resoluteness without flashiness, of perseverance without pretension" .

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