“You are truly the dean of Negro Leaders”, Martin Luther King wrote to him in 1958. At the 1963 Washington Mall demonstration of 250,000 people, watched by millions of viewers around the globe, the pioneer from the pre-TV days A. Phillip Randolph made his last hurrah. For forty years, he served as a tower and a beacon of strength to the black community, said NAACP President Benjamin Hooks. He was awarded the highest civilian medal, the Medal of Freedom, by Lyndon B. Johnson.
Randolph faded into obscurity during the highly charged 1960’s and early 70’s. Never one to seek money or personal gain, he spent his last days in a harlem apartment and was mugged by hoodlums who had no idea who he was. Upon his death in 1979 at the age of 90, his obituary in the New York Times not on the front page but on page 5, of Section B (for metropolitan area news). Commented Hooks, “It’s so sad because there are so many young people today for whom that name means very little.”
But Woodrow Wilson knew. Many years earlier, his administration had branded him “the most dangerous Negro in America. So, too, did Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took a quite different posture and invited him to the White House. “You and I share a kinship in our great interest in human and social justice”, he said. So, too, did Harry Truman who agreed to desegregate the armed forces. So, too, did Richard Nixon, who greeted him warmly ad “the grand old man of American Labor”.
Today, young people barely know the name, and they miss the opportunity to draw inspiration from a remarkable life story of determination and sacrifice. They miss the struggle of the man who had no soles on his shoes. His blue serge suit, he wore so long it began to shine like looking glass. He came out sometimes with just his fare, one way. He had nothing else.” In 1933, when his friend Fiorello La Guardia became mayor of NY and offered him a job with the city government at a desperately needed salary of $7,000 a year, Randolph turned it down. Regardless of his poverty, he kept his ey on the goal: “Nothing can keep us from winning.” Offered the opportunity to run for Congress, in a safe district, he declined. His entire life was devoted to advancing the cause of black workers in the labor movement.
Singlehandedly, he took on the most powerful company in the United States, The Pullman Company, a fearful union buster. It took twelve years of work, bu in 1937, there occurred the most dramatic movement in history of American Labor relations when the Pullman Company entered the negotiation session with Randolph’s union and announced, to everyone’s shock and surprise, “Gentlemen, the Pullman Company is ready to sign.”
It was a defining moment in the fledgling civil right’s movement at a time when jobs and wages were the priority, not equal rights.
It is suffice to say that this was a rich man, an honorable man, and a benefit to all who went after him.