A. Philip Randolph was the most important civil rights leader to emerge from the labor movement. Throughout his long career, he consistently kept the interests of black workers at the forefront of the racial agenda. Whereas civil rights leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois argued that the problem of the twentieth century was “the color line,” Randolph concluded that it was the question of the “common man.”

Early Life

Randolph’s politics were rooted in the World War I era. A child of hard-working parents who respected learning, he left Crescent City, Florida, for New York City in 1911.

Working during the day and studying at the City College at night, Randolph broadened his intellectual horizons as he read modern economic and political writers, including Marx. This theoretical grounding predisposed him to view the black working class, not the black elite, as the major hope for black progress.

His associations with socialists and the continuing urbanization of the black population strengthened his working-class orientation.

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

In 1917, Randolph and his friend Chandler Owen founded The Messenger. The magazine’s intelligent and spirited prose criticized President Woodrow Wilson as readily as Booker T. Washington and Du Bois.

Its approval of the Bolshevik Revolution was cited by various government watchdogs during the red scare of 1919, although Randolph always resisted the appeal of the communists.

The postwar reaction limited the possibilities of working-class organization, but after a few false starts, Randolph in 1925 became general organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Following a long struggle, the porters, an overwhelmingly black group, won an election and then a contract with the railroads in 1937.

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The victory made Randolph the leading black figure in the labor movement. He headed the new National Negro Congress, an umbrella movement of mass organizations, but resigned in 1940, believing the group was controlled by communists.

March on Washington

Striking out independently, he organized the March on Washington movement in 1941, which succeeded in pressuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in defense industries. After the war, a similar technique led to President Harry S. Truman‘s order desegregating the army.

While expanding his targets, Randolph never forgot the interests of black workers and was a constant critic of discrimination in some unions. The originator of the March on Washington in 1963, Randolph aimed to obtain government sponsorship of black jobs.

Civil Rights Movement

Although his goal was overshadowed by the demands of the southern civil rights movement, Randolph’s understanding of the economic needs of blacks predated the riots that drew the nation’s attention to them. He also became a critic of the black power movement, which he believed was programmatically bankrupt.

Despite his concern for ordinary workers, Randolph’s style was intellectual and aloof. Perhaps because he believed in the controlling force of self-interest, he could not fully comprehend the social and psychological impetus for the black power movement.

But his theoretical bent and rationality enabled him to construct political alliances and to choose and win significant labor and civil rights objectives.

Judith Stein

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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