Asa Philip Randolph (April 15, 1889 – May 16, 1979) was a leader in the African American civil-rights movement and the American labor movement. He organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly Negro labor union. In the early civil-rights movement, Randolph led the March on Washington Movement, which convinced Franklin D. Roosevelt to desegregate production-plants for military supplies during World War II. In 1963, Randolph was the head of the March on Washington, which was organized by Bayard Rustin, at which Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his I Have A Dream speech. Randolph inspired the Freedom budget, sometimes called the “Randolph Freedom budget”, which aimed to deal with the economic problems facing the Negro community, particularly workers and unemployed Negroes.
Early life and education
Randolph was born April 15, 1889, in Crescent City, Florida, the second son of the Rev. James William Randolph, a tailor and minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Elizabeth Robinson Randolph, a skilled seamstress. In 1891 the family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, which had a thriving, well-established African-American community.
From his father, Randolph learned that color was less important than a person’s character and conduct. From his mother, he learned the importance of education and of defending oneself physically against those who would seek to hurt one or one’s family, if necessary. Randolph remembered vividly the night his mother sat in the front room of their house with a loaded shotgun across her lap, while his father tucked a pistol under his coat and went off to prevent a mob from lynching a man at the local county jail.
Asa and his brother, James, were superior students. They attended the Cookman Institute in East Jacksonville, for years the only academic high school in Florida for African Americans. Public education was segregated. Asa excelled in literature, drama and public speaking; he also starred on the school’s baseball team, sang solos with its choir and was valedictorian of the 1907 graduating class.
After graduation, Randolph worked odd jobs and devoted his time to singing, acting and reading. Reading W. E. B. Du Bois‘ The Souls of Black Folk convinced him that the fight for social equality was most important. He moved to New York City in 1911 to become an actor but gave up after failing to win his parents’ approval. Columbia University student Chandler Owen shared Randolph’s intellectual interests; he became an economist and close collaborator.
Marriage and family
In 1913 Randolph courted and married Mrs. Lucille Campbell Green, a widow, Howard University graduate and entrepreneur who shared his socialist politics. She earned enough money to support them both. The couple had no children.
At the age of 21 in 1910, Randolph joined the Socialist Party of America. In response to increasing segregation and discrimination against blacks, Randolph shunned moderate reform and racial integration, as advocated by W. E. B. Du Bois. Instead, he emphasized socialism and craft unionism.
In 1917 Randolph and Chandler Owen founded the Messenger with the help of the Socialist Party Of America. It was a radical monthly magazine, which campaigned against lynching, opposed U.S. participation in World War I, urged African Americans to resist being drafted, to fight for an integrated society, and recommended they join radical unions.
Randolph had some experience in labor organization, having organized a union of elevator operators in New York City in 1917. In 1919 he became president of the National Brotherhood of Workers of America, a union which organised 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. In 1925 Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and was elected president. This was the first serious effort to form a labor institution for employees of the Pullman Company, which was a major employer of African Americans. The railroads had expanded dramatically in the early 20th century, and the jobs offered relatively good employment at a time of widespread racial discrimination. In these early years, however, the company took advantage of the employees. The union helped support The Messenger until 1928, when it needed to use funds for other purposes.
With amendments to the Railway Labor Act in 1934, porters were granted rights under federal law. Membership in the Brotherhood jumped to more than 7,000. After years of bitter struggle, the Pullman Company finally began to negotiate with the Brotherhood in 1935, and agreed to a contract with them in 1937. This gained employees $2,000,000 in pay increases , a shorter workweek, and overtime pay. Randolph maintained the Brotherhood’s affiliation with the American Federation of Labor through the 1955 AFL-CIO merger.
Civil rights leader
Randolph emerged as one of the most visible spokesmen for African-American civil rights. In 1941, he, Bayard Rustin, and A. J. Muste proposed a march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in war industries and to propose the desegregation of the American Armed forces. The march was cancelled after President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, or the Fair Employment Act. Some militants felt betrayed because Roosevelt’s order applied only to banning discrimination within war industries and not the armed forces.
But, the Fair Employment Act is generally perceived as a success for African-American labor rights. In 1942, an estimated 18,000 blacks gathered at Madison Square Garden to hear Randolph kick off a campaign against discrimination in the military, in war industries, in government agencies, and in labor unions. Following the act, during the Philadelphia Transit Strike of 1944, the government backed African-American workers’ striking to gain positions formerly limited to white employees.
In 1947, Randolph, along with colleague Grant Reynolds, renewed efforts to end discrimination in the armed services, forming the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service, later renamed the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman abolished racial segregation in the armed forces through Executive Order 9981.
Randolph was notable for supporting restrictions on immigration. He opposed African Americans’ having to compete with more people willing to work for low wages. In 1950, along with Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, and, Arnold Aronson, a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, Randolph founded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). LCCR has been a major civil rights coalition. It coordinated a national legislative campaign on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957.
Randolph finally saw a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with the help of Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is often attributed in part to the success of the March on Washington, where Black and White Americans stood united and witnessed King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
As the U.S. civil rights movement gained momentum in the early 1960s and came to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, Randolph was often heard on television news programs addressing the nation on behalf of African Americans engaged in the struggle for voting rights and an end to discrimination in public accommodations.
Randolph was a member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
Randolph famously said of prayer : “Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of our times,and above the cheap peanut politics of the old reactionary negro leaders. Patriotism has no appeal to us; justice has. Party has no weight to us; principle has. Loyalty is meaningless; it depends on what one is loyal too. Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.”
Awards and accolades
- On September 14, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson presented Randolph with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- Named Humanist of the Year in 1970 by the American Humanist Association.
- Famous Quotes- “A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”
- “Salvation for a race, nation or class must come from within. Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”