The Father of the Civil Rights Movement

A. Philip Randolph

Image courtesy of State Archives of Florida

The Father of the Civil Rights Movement
| Published February 26, 2014 |

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

Not everyone knows the name Asa Philip Randolph. The father of the civil rights movement in the United States, Randolph was also known at one time as the most dangerous man in the country. His claim to fame was organizing and leading the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The vast majority of people in the world easily recall the name Martin Luther King Jr, a man who delivered the now famous, 18-minute “I Have a Dream” speech. That speech would catapult King into the very center of the national spotlight. King was young and charismatic, and Randolph was 74, having led the movement for more than six decades. It was an iconic moment in American history and a long overdue message, but how would history judge what occurred that day? The media has certainly marginalized Randolph and his story, frequently making him a minor footnote to the movement as opposed to the significant figure he actually was.

Time magazine has often been the Cliff's Notes of history, oversimplifying events for generations, but they outdid themselves on occasion. In their special I Have A Dream issue, King's photograph is emblazoned on the cover, with the large caption Founding Father. And of course, inside the headlines trumpeted One Man, One March, One Speech, One Dream. Who comes up with this stuff?

Of the 17 speakers that day there's only one survivor, John Lewis, a 13-term congressman from Georgia. At the time, he was a 23-year-old student leader, and he recently recalled his memories of the movement to the Florida Times-Union.

“A. Philip Randolph rightfully and accurately should be called the father of the modern civil rights movement," Lewis said. Lewis wasn't trying to take away from King's role, but said there wouldn't have been a march without Randolph. Also there was Lloyd Pearson, a United States Postal Service employee, along with his brother Rutledge Pearson, an NAACP leader locally and nationally who would die from injuries sustained in a car wreck less than four years later.

"We had to do things to impress people that we were human beings," Pearson said. Blacks were looked down upon at that time, so organizers had stressed good behavior, respect and no violence. The Washington Post said the march was solemn and orderly, while the marchers were spirited but orderly.

It's been 50 years since 250,000 people came from all over this nation to Washington, D.C. Many rode the Freedom Train, but many more piled into busses for the opportunity to be a part of history. It was a hot August day, and many of the young people were restless as they stood near the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. The crowd was quiet as they listened to King, Randolph and 15 other speakers.

It was a revolution with a soundtrack, highlighted by gospel vocalist Mahalia Jackson singing “I've Been Buked, and I've Been Scorned” and “How I Got Over.” But there was so much more. Joan Baez and “Oh Freedom” for the early arrivers coming by the starting line at the Washington Monument around 10 a.m., followed by Odetta, and Peter, Paul and Mary, The Freedom Singers and several others. Marian Anderson captivated the crowd with her performance of “He's Got The Whole World in His Hands.”

Randolph organized five major protests in his lifetime, with The March on Washington being his last. However, his most significant march may have been the one he never led. He had opposed black involvement in World War I, but his attitude changed by the 1940s. He met with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in June, 1941, demanding that African-Americans be allowed to work in the defense industry.

Randolph promised 100,000 people would march on Washington if blacks were not included in defense jobs. Six days before the march was scheduled, Roosevelt relented and signed Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in hiring practices concerning the federal government and defense industry.

Blacks served with distinction in World War II, and many hoped there would have been vast improvements in race relations following the war. However, intimidation, indignities and disappearances continued, especially in the South. Relations between black and white in Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas slowly but inevitably gained national attention. Ironically, the Sunshine State had the worst record of all, according to Marvin Dunn's The Beast in Florida: A History of Anti-Black Violence.

But I'm getting off the subject of Randolph and his life. He was a black man, an avowed socialist and labor organizer, so he was certainly unpopular in early 20th century America. His strong socialist leanings—caused in part by both the Republican and Democratic parties shunning or ignoring blacks and leaving them little hope for a bright future—shepherded Randolph toward independence from the major parties. The communists, however, were jealous of Randolph and hated him.

Randolph was born in Baldwin, Florida (near Jacksonville), in 1889, eventually moving to Crescent City and Jacksonville, where he spent his formative years. His parents were former slaves, and his father became a preacher for the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He graduated from the Cookman Institute, which at the time was the only academic school for people of color in Florida, and one of the first predominantly black colleges in North America. Being forced to work manual labor jobs, at 22 he left for New York City. He lived in Harlem, where he briefly considered a career in acting and theater. Randolph attended classes at City College, studying English and sociology.

It was there that his path crossed that of Chandler Owen, a law student at Columbia. They shared an interest in labor causes and soon afterwards Randolph and Owen founded an employment agency and union designed to better organize black workers in New York. Randolph maintained his interest in theater, including Shakespearean productions, and it was in this environment that he met his future wife, Harvard graduate Lucille Green. At the height of World War I, Owen and Randolph collaborated to form The Messenger, a social and political magazine which—among other things—championed a larger role (and better wages) for black Americans in the Army, in civilian military jobs, and in the armaments industry.

Randolph eventually became a major force in organized labor, working on projects to unionize shipyard workers and elevator operators. In New York he twice ran for elected office on the Socialist Party ticket, and though the leftist parties in the U.S. were at their zenith, Randolph failed to win either of those elections.

His greatest accomplishment may have been the twelve years he spent organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph met resistance not only from the Pullman Company, one of the largest employers of blacks in those days, but also from the major labor organizations, such as the AFL (American Federation of Labor), which empowered local chapters to refuse membership to black laborers. Still, Randolph persisted and campaigned, and eventually persuaded the AFL to grant membership to the Porters’ Union, though he would later withdraw because of the persistent discrimination within the predominantly white labor group.

Randolph also led the 1957 prayer pilgrimage pushing for a civil rights bill, and shortly afterwards became involved in early efforts at school desegregation.

Randolph was married, but he didn't have any children, so his legacy was championed by others. The A. Philip Randolph Institute in Washington and the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago have continued to champion his causes. Suffering from frail health and a heart condition, Randolph retired from public at the end of the 1960s. He died in his home in New York City in 1979 at the age of 90.

I like to think some of Randolph's attitude still shows through in the Florida Star, a black newspaper in Jacksonville. Eric O. Simpson started the paper in 1951 due to a lack of coverage on black issues locally by other, mainstream papers. He was the first black to be elected to the Florida Press Association Hall of Fame.

The Florida Star has never sugarcoated or glossed over events, and has traditionally shown a strong interest in segregation, job discrimination and police brutality. Their police briefs were among the best I've ever seen, and I've read thousands. Mr. Simpson wrote many of the police and crime briefs himself. Boycotts and sit-ins were also often listed so readers could participate in those. Simpson and his paper also pressured the city to hire black policemen and firefighters. He passed away in 1994, and his daughters now run the newspaper.

Some information in this story was gleaned from the Florida Times-Union archives and the Florida Star, The Beast in Florida: A History of Anti-Black Violence by Marvin Dunn, along with several websites including the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum and Wikipedia.