Hero of the Democratic Left: A. Philip Randolph


Before Martin Luther King, Jr., there was A. Philip Randolph. Without A. Philip Randolph, no Martin Luther King, Jr.

After Randolph led a 12-year campaign to win a union contract for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, he was catapulted into the top ranks of African-American leaders. In 1941, he launched the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) and compelled President Roosevelt to issue an executive order outlawing discrimination in defense production. Randolph continued the struggle and the MOWM during WWII. At its 1943, the MOWM adopted a policy of non-violent direct action to fight discrimination. After the war, Randolph led the campaign that integrated the Armed Services. In 1962, Randolph and Bayard Rustin conceived the idea for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Randolph was, fittingly, the lead speaker at that 1963 event and, just as appropriately introduced Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Most Dangerous Negro in America

Born in 1889 in Florida, the son of an AME minister, Randolph moved to Harlem in 1911. Working as an elevator operator, porter, and waiter, he took night classes at City College, he was introduced to the ideas of the growing Socialist movement. The history of the European working class movements was so exciting that he began “reading Marx as children read Alice in Wonderland.” It was “like finally running into an idea which gives you your outlook on life.”

In 1917, Randolph with Chandler Owen founded a magazine The Messenger. Although devoted to radical politics, it had a lively literature and arts section, which published the works of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen.

Randolph led an energetic Harlem effort for Morris Hillquit‘s Socialist campaign for mayor of New York in 1917. In 1920, the Socialist Party nominated Randolph for State Comptroller and he polled 202,361 votes–only 1,000 less than Eugene Debs, the Socialist Presidential candidate.

Randolph, Owen, and The Messenger fully supported the SP opposition to the first world war. They told President Wilson “Lynching, Jim Crow, segregation discrimination in the armed forces and out, disenfranchisement of millions of black souls in the South–all these make your cry of making the world safe for democracy a sham, a mockery, a rape on decency and a travesty on common justice.”

In 1918, speaking at an anti-war rally in Cleveland, Ohio, Randolph and Owen were arrested for violating the Espionage Act. White socialists like Eugene Debs and Kate Richards O’Hare were sent to prison under this law, but Randolph narrowly escaped.

Randolph later recounted the proceedings:

The judge was astonished when he saw us and read what we had written in the Messenger. Chandler and I were twenty-nine at the time, but we looked much younger. The judge said, why, we were nothing but boys. He couldn’t believe we were old enough, smart enough, to write that red-hot stuff in the Messenger. There was no doubt that the white Socialists were using us, that they had written the stuff for us. [Our lawyer] was ready for a grand political defense, indicting the war and everything else. But the judge looked at him and said, “I don’t think we are going to have a trial, I am going to release these boys in your custody, and I want you to see that they return to their parents home.”

After questioning Randolph and Owen and hearing them expound their radical views, the judge almost changed his mind.

“I ought to throw you in jail,” he said. “But take my advice and get out of town. If we catch you here again, you won’t be so lucky.”

Federal authorities kept Randolph under surveillance. The Department of Justice recommended prosecution of  the “most dangerous Negro in America.”

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

Randolph’s efforts to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is well-dramatized in the 2002 HBO movie 10,000 Black Men Named George (this can be rented from Netflix). The best account of the strategy, tactics, and impact of the BSCP is Beth Tompkins Bates, Pullman Porters and the Rise of the Protest Politics in Black America, 1925-1943.

Wikipedia has a good entry on the BSCP. Here’s the background to the struggle:

The campaign to found the union was an extraordinarily long one, that put it at odds with not only the company, but many members of the black community. The Pullman Company was not only one of the largest employers of blacks in the 1920s and 1930s, but had created an image for itself of enlightened benevolence by its financial support for black churches, newspapers and other organizations. Many porters were, moreover, well-paid enough to enjoy the material advantages of a middle class lifestyle and prominence within their own communities.

Working for the Pullman Company was, however, less glamorous in practice than it appeared from the outside. Porters were dependent on tips for much of their income; that, in turn, made them dependent on the whims of white passengers, who uniformly referred to all porters as “George”, the first name of George Pullman, the founder of the company. Porters spent roughly ten percent of their time in unpaid “preparatory” and “terminal” set-up and clean-up duties, had to pay for their food, lodging, and uniforms, which might consume half of their wages, and were charged whenever their passengers stole a towel or a water pitcher. Porters could ride at half fare on their days off — but not on Pullman coaches. They also could not be promoted to conductor, a job reserved for whites, even though they frequently performed many of the conductors’ duties. The Company also squelched any efforts they had made to organize a union during the first decades of the twentieth century by either isolating or firing any union leaders. Like many other large, ostensibly paternalistic companies of the time, the Company employed a large number of employee spies who kept the company informed of employees’ activities; in extreme cases Company agents assaulted union organizers.

When 500 porters meeting in Harlem on August 25, 1925 decided to make another effort to organize, they therefore not only launched their campaign in secret, but chose Randolph, an outsider beyond the reach of the Company, to lead it. The union chose a dramatic motto that summed up porters’ resentment over their working conditions and their sense of their place in history: “Fight or Be Slaves”.

Randolph later said:

There was no other group of Negroes in America who constituted the key to unlocking the door of a nationwide struggle for Negro rights as the porters. Without the porters I couldn’t have carried on the fight for fair employment, or the fight against discrimination in the armed forces.

E. D. Nixon, a BSCP activist, played a key role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Montgomery Welfare League, and the Montgomery Voters League. He recruited both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

March on Washington

Frustrated with the poor results of behind the scenes lobbying to get the Roosevelt administration to act against discrimination as the nation began an arms buildup, Randolph came up with the idea of 10,000 Negroes to march down Pennsylvania Avenue.


On January 15, 1941, Randolph issued a statement to the press:

. . only power can effect the enforcement and adoption of a given policy, however meritorious it may be. The virtue and rightness of a cause are not alone the condition and cause of its acceptance. Power and pressure the foundation of the march of social justice and reform . . . power pressure do not reside in the few, and intelligentsia, they lie in and flow the masses. Power does not even rest with the masses as such. Power is active principle of only the organized masses, the masses united for a definite purpose. Hence, Negro America must bring its power and pressure w upon the agencies and representatives of the Federal Government to exact their rights in National Defense employment and the armed forces of the country…I suggest that TEN THOUSAND Negroes march on Washington, D.C….with the slogan WE LOYAL NEGRO AMERICAN CITIZENS DEMAND THE RIGHT TO WORK AND FIGHT FOR OUR COUNTRY .. No propaganda could be whipped up and Spread to the effect that Negroes seek to hamper defense. No charge could be that Negroes are attempting to mar national unity. They want to do none of those things. On the contrary, we seek the right to play our part in advancing the cause of national defense and national unity. But there certainly can be no national unity where one tenth of the population are denied their basic rights as American citizens///One thing is certain and that is if Negroes are going to get anything out of this national defense, which will cost the nation 30 or 40 billions of dollars that we Negroes must help pay in taxes as property owners, and workers and consumers, WE MUST FIGHT FOR IT AND FIGHT FOR WITH GLOVES OFF.”

The idea caught on like wildfire, and soon Randolph was calling for 100,000 to march. After tense negotiations with FDR, Executive Order 8802 was issued declaring it to be the policy of the US government “that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, or national origin” and that “it is the duty of employers and of labor organization…to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries.”

Integrating the Armed Forces

The March on Washington Movement continued through (and a little beyond). At the Detroit conference in 1942, Randolph called attention to “the strategy and maneuver of the people of India with mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation.” APR-dnc_jimcrow.jpg

In 1943, he urged the 1200 delegates to adopt a policy of “non-violent good-will direct action.” After sessions on non-violence led by Bayard Rustin and Dean William Nelson of Howard University, the MOWM convention unanimously voted to adopt non-violent direct action tactics and projects were planned for the 26 cities with chapters. These plans were shelved after the 1943 Detroit race riot and because of opposition from the black press, but the prospect of non-violence action returned after the end of WWII.

In 1947, President Harry Truman called for a peacetime draft, but the draft bill contained no provision for a ban against segregation. Randolph with Grant Reynolds, NY Commissioner for Corrections, soon founded the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. On March 31, 1948 Randolph told the Senate Armed Services Committee:

This time Negroes will not take a Jim Crow draft lying down. The conscience of the word will be shaken as by nothing when thousands and thousands of us second-class Americans choose imprisonment in preference to permanent military slavery…. I personally will advise Negroes to refuse to fight as slaves for a democracy they cannot possess and cannot enjoy….I personally pledge myself to openly counsel and abet youth, both white and Negro, to quarantine any Jim Crow conscription system….On previous occasions, I have seen the ‘national emergency’ psychology mow down legitimate Negro demands…

A poll of black men in Harlem showed 71 percent in favor of a civil disobedience against a Jim Crow draft. Randolph and others picketed the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. On July 26, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 ending segregation in the military.

1963 March on Washington

Randolph continued to play a crucial role in the civil rights and labor movements through the 1950s and 1960s. He has the grand old man of the civil rights movement, the one man who could bring together the diverse and often contentious institutions and movements. His long time colleague Bayard Rustin became an off-and-on key advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Without Randolph’s great strategic genius in conceiving of the March and his tactical wisdom in bringing it about, history might have been far different.

Here is part of his speech which was the first to the 200,000 at the Lincoln Memorial:

Let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers. We not a pressure group, we are not an organization or a group of organizations, we are not a mob. We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom. . . . But this civil rights revolution is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not, and we know we have no future in a in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions live in poverty …. We want a free democratic society dedicated to the political, economic and social advancement of man along moral lines. . . . We know that real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions. For one thing, we must destroy the notion that Mrs. Murphy’s property rights include the right to humiliate me because of the color of my skin.” The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality.

It falls to the Negro to reassert this priority of values, because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property. It falls to us to demand full employment and to put automation at the service of human needs, not at the service of profits …. All who deplore our militancy, who exhort patience in the name of false peace, are in fact supporting segregation and exploitation. They would have social peace at the expense of social and racial justice. They are more concerned with easing racial tensions than enforcing racial democracy.

Jervis Anderson writes in his superb A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait:

..it had been the “most beautiful and glorious of Randolph’s life. As the thousands walked away from the Memorial, singing, he had stood at a deserted end of the platform, looking out over the grounds that were slowly emptying. Seeing him standing alone, Bayard Rustin broke away from a group of friends, went over, and put his arm around the old man’s shoulders. “I could see he was tired,” Rustin recalled,. “I said to him, ‘Mr. Randolph, it looks like your dream has come true.’ And when I looked into his eyes, tears were streaming down his checks. It is the one time I can recall that he could not hold back his feelings.”


  • Jervis Anderson, A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait (1973; University of California Press, 1986). ISBN 978-0520055056
  • Beth Tompkins Bates, Pullman Porters and the Rise of the Protest Politics in Black America, 1925-1943 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001) 
  • Cornelius Bynum, A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights  978-0-252-07764-7
  • Paula Pfeffer, A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (1990; Louisiana State University Press, 1996). ISBN 978-0807120750
  • Andrew E. Kersten, A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard (Rowan and Littlefield, 2006). ISBN 978-0742548985
  • Cynthia Taylor, A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of An African American Labor Leader (NYU Press, 2006). ISBN 978-0814782873


A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom A 1996 PBS documentary not available from California Newsreel.

10,000 Black Men Named George. A HBO dramatization of Randolph’s long and ultimately successful campaign to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Web Documentaries

A. Philip Randolph Exhibit based on the 1992-2001 traveling exhibit on A. Philip Randolph sponsored by the AFL-CIO.

Stuart Elliott is in the Wichita DSA chapter and a member of the DSA National Political Committee.