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Asa Philip Randolph Civil Rights Activist, Union and Labor Organizer

The statue of A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and civil rights activist, at Union Station in Washington, D.C.
Photo taken by author

In celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, this examiner will feature A. Philip Randolph. Randolph was a leader in the African-American civil rights movement, the American labor movement, and socialist political movement. He most noted for organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a labor movement for African-Americans chartered by the American Federation of Labor.

A. Philip Randolph was born on April 15, 1889 in Crescent City, Florida to a minister and tailor in the AME Baptist Church and a seamstress. His parents were influential in his upbringing. He learned that skin color was less important than character and conduct and education a valuable asset to leadership. He attended Cookman Institute (now Bethune-Cookman University), the only high school for African-Americans and graduated a valedictorian in 1907.

Randolph moved to New York in 1911 working odd jobs and attending City College. In 1913, he married Lucille Campbell Green, a widow and entrepreneur who shared and supported his views. In New York, he got into socialist ideologies through the Industrial Workers of the World. Randolph first spearheaded a labor organization for elevator operators in 1917. From 1919 to 1921, he was President of the National Brotherhood of Workers of America.

In 1925, he founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters becoming its first president. This was a major effort for African-Americans to unionize against working conditions and better wages. Under his directorship the organization managed to enroll 51% of porters within a year. However, there were setbacks. The Pullman Company threatened violence and firings. In 1928, under the Railway Labor Act, he was unable to win a mediation to resolve labor conditions. He planned to strike but rumors abound that Pullman was replacing BSCP employees with non-union workers. As a result, membership declined. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, amendments to the Railway Labor Act granted porters rights and membership increased. The Pullman Company negotiated with the organization and agreed to a contract with them in 1937. Employees gained a shorter workweek, increased pay, and overtime pay.

Randolph along with Bayard Rustin led the March on Washington Movement from 1941 to 1946 to pressure the U.S. government to desegregate the armed forces and fair working opportunities for African-Americans. The march was a predecessor to the 1963 March on Washington. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman abolished segregation in the armed forces. In 1950, Randolph; Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP; and Arnold Aronson, a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, formed the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Randolph’s involvement in civil rights influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and African-Americans to encourage voter registration and boycott institutions that discriminated against them in a nonviolent manner. In 1942, he was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal . On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 1970, the American Humanist Association named him Humanist of the Year.

Amtrak has erected a statue of Asa Philip Randolph at Union Station, Washington, D.C.