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A. Philip Randolph, Labor & Civil Rights Activist Born

Parks, Gordon, photographer.Washington, D.C. Portrait of A. Philip Randolph, labor leader.1942. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) was an American labor unionist, civil rights activist, and socialist politician. In 1925, he organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African American labor union. In 1963, Randolph co-organized the March on Washington.

Randolph was born on April 15, 1889 in Crescent City, Florida. He grew up after the end of slavery, when segregation and the Jim Crow laws became the norm in the South. Randolph moved to Harlem, New York at age twenty-two as one of the millions of African Americans moving north in order to escape the Jim Crow laws and the dangers of the Ku Klux Klan. According to Andrew Kersten in A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard, Randolph's political beliefs were heavily influenced by the works of W.E.B. DuBois and Karl Marx. Randolph and his friend Chandler Owens started a magazine called The Messenger which they described as “the first voice of radical, revolutionary, economic, and political action among Negroes in America.”1

In 1925, Randolph was selected to be the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. This union served porters working on the Pullman Company railroads. Porters were subjected to poor working conditions including long hours on little sleep, low wages and dehumanizing treatment. As a person who did not work for the Pullman Company, Randolph was safe from being fired for unionizing. Randolph was also chosen as president for his ability to raise awareness of the Pullman porter cause using his periodical The Messenger, which often featured articles and cartoons in support of the Pullman porters, especially in 1926 and 1927.2 Although it took twelve years, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was successful in achieving higher wages for workers, a shorter work month, and the right to a hearing before discharge.

In December 1941, Randolph called for a March on Washington in protest of discrimination against African Americans in the defense industry. President Franklin Roosevelt feared that this march would cause violence in DC and offered an executive order in exchange for the cancellation of the march.3 This order declared that “There shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries and in Government, because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” Although Randolph called off the march after the passing of Executive Order 8802, the idea paved the way for the historic March on Washington in 1963. In 1947, Randolph encouraged young African American men to refuse conscription to protest the segregated military. This contributed to Truman passing an order to end discrimination in the military. These orders that supported integration helped to make the military “one of the only branches of the federal government that has consistently utilized racial minorities at a level close to their proportion of the population.”4

Randolph co-organized the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Over 250,000 protesters marched for an “end to segregation in public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education and the right to vote.”5 Randolph gave a speech, describing the important advances that protesting had brought to civil rights and proclaiming the right of African Americans to be treated as individuals.6 In the years following the March on Washington multiple acts were passed which made great strides towards an equitable society.

Outside of his role as president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a civil rights leader, Randolph contributed to the labor movement as the vice-president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 1955 and served on the council until 1974. As vice-president, he encouraged desegregation in the unions, which were often segregated spaces.7

A. Philip Randolph died on May 16, 1979. Activist Bayard Rustin stated, “No individual did more to help the poor, the dispossessed and the working class in the United States and around the world than A. Philip Randolph”.8 Today, the A. Philip Randolph foundation continues his work promoting “trade unionism in the black community.”9

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  1. Kersten, Andrew E. A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard, (United States: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2006) 4-17. Back to text
  2. Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Pullman Porter External New York: Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1927. (accessed June 28, 2023). 5-6. Back to text
  3. Kersten, Andrew E & Lucander, David. For Jobs and Freedom: Selected Speeches and Writings of A. Philip Randolph. (United States: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 14-15. Back to text
  4. Kersten & David, For Jobs and Freedom, 18-19. Back to text
  5. Protests That Changed America: The March on Washington (accessed June 28, 2023) Timeless Stories from the Library of Congress. Back to text
  6. The St. Augustine Record. A. Philip Randolph's 1963 March on Washington Speech External (accessed June 28, 2023). Back to text
  7. AFL-CIO. A. Philip Randolph External (accessed June 28, 2023). Back to text
  8. Kersten & David, For Jobs and Freedom, 24-25. Back to text
  9. A. Philip Randolph Institute. Our History External (accessed June 28, 2023). Back to text