April 15 is the 125th anniversary of the birth of A. Philip Randolph, a staunch trade unionist, civil rights activist, and advocate for federal action to ensure every American receives equal protection under the Constitution. His 90 years of life spanned tumultuous times for the nation and were filled with violent repression and astounding advances, but Randolph never stopped fighting for structural change. As many despair the past three years of gridlock in Washington, it may be useful to remember the broader arc of history that Randolph helped to bend toward justice.
Born in segregated Florida on April 15, 1889, Randolph moved to New York in 1911 to expand his own horizons and quickly became engulfed in the excitement of a growing labor movement. He urged other black migrants from the south to join unions, to build their skills, and to get educated. By 1917, working as an elevator operator and a waiter, he organized his peers in both industries to fight for better wages and working conditions. He founded a radical magazine, The Messenger, that opposed lynching, U.S. participation in WWI, and encouraged integration and black collective action. In 1919, he became president of a union of black shipyard and dockworkers in Virginia that was dissolved four years later under pressure from the American Federation of Labor, which at that time preached but often failed to practice racial equality.
Four years later, he was leading the fight for improved wages and working conditions among railroad workers organized in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. After the Civil War, railroads expanded rapidly and became the major means of long-haul transportation across the continent. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Chicago entrepreneur George Pullman launched a new luxury for travelers: the sleeping car. Pullman built fancy sleeper cars and hired thousands of African-American men to work as porters/valets attending to the needs of travelers, leasing the cars and porters together ‒ as a package ‒ to the owners of the nation’s railroads. These Pullman porters worked long hours for low pay. The typical porter worked about 400 hours a month, traveling 11,000 miles, and was paid only $810 a year in 1926 ( $10,000 in today’s dollars). Most relied on tips from customers. By custom, the porters were all called “George” (for George Pullman), a demeaning insult to their humanity.
During World War I (1914-1918), the federal government took over the railroads and encouraged workers to organize into unions. In 1919, the Order of Sleeping Car Conductors was formed to bargain for better wages for white conductors (who were “sober and industrious, and of sound mind and body”). But the black porters the conductors supervised were not allowed to join, so they started their own union in 1925 and spent years fighting for formal recognition.
Randolph tried to enlist the power of the federal government onto the Brotherhood’s side: on Sept. 7, 1927 the union filed a case with the Interstate Commerce Commission, requesting an investigation of Pullman rates, porters' wages, tipping practices, and other matters related to wages and working conditions; the ICC ruled that it did not have jurisdiction. Next they threatened a strike in 1928 to try to push the federal National Mediation Board to force the Pullman Company to negotiate a contract. But the NMB refused to act on behalf of the Brotherhood; the authorities sat on the sidelines.
With the advent of the Great Depression, the union got weaker and smaller – travel was down, jobs were scarce, and dues were scarcer. But in 1934, the Roosevelt administration amended the Railway Labor Act to protect the collective bargaining rights of porters. The Brotherhood won a majority of workers in the union election in 1935, received a charter from the AFL, and two years later the won its first contract from Pullman, providing black porters higher wages, overtime, and shorter work hours. Now unionized Pullman porters comprised a black middle class.
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In the meantime, Randolph was continuing to press for civil right in other arenas and was chosen leader of an umbrella group of civil right organizations called the National Negro Congress. Inspired by Gandhi’s success in winning independence from England by using mass demonstrations to put moral pressure on political leaders, Randolph threatened to bring 50,000 marchers to Washington unless discrimination against blacks in federally run plants producing for the war effort was ended. The march was called off when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 or the Fair Employment Act. However, the act was not as far-reaching as the organizers hoped it would be, and in 1942, they launched a new national campaign to end discrimination in the military, government agencies, and labor unions. In 1944, the federal government backed black transit workers in Philadelphia fighting for the opportunity to move up. And in 1948, in the face of more pressure from civil rights activists, President Truman passed Executive Order 9981 abolishing racial segregation in the armed forces. These victories set the stage for the civil rights movement.
In 1950, Randolph founded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which has coordinated legislative campaigns on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957 and still does so today. LCCR formed an alliance with the Martin Luther King, Jr. and organized Prayer Pilgrimages, Youth Marches for Integrated Schools, nonviolent demonstrations, and alliances with progressive whites between 1958 and 1962.
Randolph finally saw his vision of a March on Washington fulfilled in the summer of 1963. He spoke to the quarter of a million people gathered on the National Mall, reminding his audience that governments act when engaged citizens force them to:
“The plain and simple fact is that until we went into the streets the federal government was indifferent to our demands. It was not until the streets and jails of Birmingham were filled that Congress began to think about civil rights legislation. It was not until thousands demonstrated in the South that lunch counters and other public accommodations were integrated.”
Even after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, A. Philip Randolph demanded more because he believed that people could only be free if they were not subject to economic deprivation. In 1966, in the wake of President Lyndon Johnson declaring war on poverty, Randolph and Bayard Rustin traveled to Washington D.C. to present an 84-page Freedom Budget, which called for significant increases in public investment in education and job training and a guaranteed minimum income and right to housing for all Americans. This work was partially funded by the AFL-CIO, demonstrating his success in shifting the view of organized labor on racial equity over his lifetime, as well as his outsized impact on federal civil rights policy.
A. Philip Randolph understood that the collective actions of citizens can ensure that government be a force for social justice. He helped others imagine a new world and then worked to make it so. As we remember and celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of this great American, let us re-commit ourselves to completing his vision of a government that encourages maximum participation and opportunity, that enables those who come after us to have more security in their lives and more dignity.