A. Philip Randolph

Asa Philip Randolph was born in 1889 in Crescent, Florida. He was the second son of James Randolph, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Elizabeth, both of whom were staunch supporters of equal rights for African Americans and general human rights. In 1891, the Randolph family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where Asa would live for most of his youth, and where he would eventually attend the Cookman Institute, one of the first institutions of higher education for blacks in the country. After graduating from Cookman, in 1911 Randolph moved to the Harlem neighborhood of New York City with some contemplation about becoming an actor. During this time, he studied English literature and sociology at City College; held a variety of jobs, including as an elevator operator, a porter, and a waiter; and developed his rhetorical skills. In 1912, Randolph made one of his earliest significant political moves when he founded an employment agency called the Brotherhood of Labor with Chandler Owen—a Columbia University law student who shared Randolph’s socialist political views—as a means of organizing black workers. He began his efforts when, while working as a waiter on a coastal steamship, he organized a rally against their poor living conditions. After the war ended, Randolph became a lecturer at the Rand School of Social Science. In the early 1920s, he unsuccessfully ran for offices in New York State on the Socialist Party ticket. Randolph would become more convinced than ever that unions would be the best way for African Americans to improve their lot. In 1925, Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). Serving as its president, he sought to gain the union’s official inclusion in the American Federation of Labor, the affiliates of which, at that time, frequently barred African Americans from membership. The BSCP met with resistance primarily from the Pullman Company, which was the largest employer of blacks at that time. But Randolph battled on, and in 1937, won membership in the AFL, making the BSCP the first African-American union in the United States. Randolph withdrew the union from the AFL the following year, however, in protest of ongoing discrimination within the organization, and then turned his attention toward the federal government. During the 1940s, Randolph twice used mass protest as a means of influencing the policies of the federal government. Following the United States’ entrance into World War II, he planned a march on Washington to protest discrimination in the war industry workforce. Randolph called off the march after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that banned racial discrimination at government defense factories and established the first Fair Employment Practices Committee. After World War II, Randolph again took on the federal government by organizing the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. That group’s actions eventually led President Harry S. Truman to issue a 1948 executive order banning racial segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces. In 1963, Randolph was a principal organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which he would speak to an integrated crowd of nearly 250,000 supporters. His wife Lucille having died not long before the march, he nonetheless shared the podium that day with Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Randolph and King were among the handful of civil rights leaders to meet with President John F. Kennedy after the march. With Kennedy discussing the potential Congressional push needed to strengthen the civil rights bill, Randolph told him, “It’s going to be a crusade then. And I think that nobody can lead this crusade but you, Mr. President.”The following year, for these and other civil rights efforts, Randolph was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Soon after, he founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization aimed at studying the causes of poverty and co-founded by Randolph’s mentee Bayard Rustin. In 1965, at a White House conference, he proposed a poverty elimination program called the “Freedom Budget for All Americans.” Randolph is an unsung hero for the black community and has changed how we are treated within the labor field. If it was not for Randolph’s drive and dedication, we would not be where we are today.

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