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A. Philip Randolph: Man Behind the Scenes of the Civil Rights Movement

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

By Tara Mae

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision and conviction were informed and supported by a coalition of allies and friends. A. Philip Randolph connected him to some of the most influential figures in his ideological evolution and helped facilitate one of his most famous nonviolent protests. An established figure in the labor and civil rights movements, Randolph’s assistance was instrumental in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, among other endeavors. Randolph’s skill as an organizer and networker was essential to the progress of these causes.

Born on April 15, 1889, Asa Philip Randolph grew up in Florida. His father, James, was a tailor and minister. Randolph’s mother, Elizabeth, was a talented seamstress. Randolph distinctly recalled a night when Elizabeth sat in the family’s front room with a shotgun over her lap while James tucked a pistol into his coat and left the house to stop a mob from lynching a man in the county jail.

Distinguished students, Randolph and his brother, James, attended the Cookman Institute in East Jacksonville, which was for years the only academic high school for Black students in Florida. He had a particular interest in literature, public speaking, and drama. After graduating as valedictorian in 1907, Randolph worked odd jobs and devoted his time to singing, acting, and reading. He was personally inspired to prioritize the fight for social justice by W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folks. This decision influenced him both personally and professionally.

In 1911, Randolph moved to New York City to pursue a theatrical career. Acting aspirations did not derail his focus on social justice. In New York, Randolph was able to combine these passions and use the skills he developed, one informing the other. He continued working odd jobs and took social science classes at City College.

Even in his acting career, Randolph created opportunities not only for himself, but for others, helping to organize the Shakespeare Society of Harlem. With the troupe, he played Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo. Randolph gave up his acting ambitions when his parents failed to support them, and instead honed his efforts on social justice aims.

Shortly before he co-established the theater group, Randolph married widow Lucille Campbell Green, a Howard University graduate and entrepreneur. She owned and operated a successful beauty salon that catered to affluent Black women. Both Green and Randolph were independently politically active. Once married, Green supported Randloph politically and financially. With her assistance, Randolph began organizing on behalf of the labor and civil rights movements.

Randolph’s commitment took many forms. Joining up with Columbia University student Chandler Owens, the two men composed an amalgam of Marxist theory and the sociological ideas of Lester Frank Ward, positing the theory that people could only be free if they were economically secure. This school of thought informed what would become Randolph’s primary work in the civil rights movement: collective action as a means to garner economic and legal authority. This principle would impact his relationship with Dr. King.

Many of Randolph’s reform enterprises related to discrimination in the labor force. By the time Randolph met Dr. King, he was a veteran labor and civil rights activist and organizer. His most prominent early effort as a reformer was on behalf of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), formed by members of the Pullman Company. It was the first labor union led by Blacks to receive a charter in the American Labor Federation.

The group came to Randolph and requested that he become its president. Randolph agreed. Within 12 months, 51 percent of the workers had joined the BSCP. The Pullman Company responded with intimidation and violence, which then decimated the union’s membership and finances. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election as president helped change the union’s fortunes and the status of the porters. It also boosted Randolph’s profile.

He met and befriended activist Bayard Rustin. This would prove a pivotal and life-altering partnership. In the early 1940s, with clergyman and political activist A. J. Muste, they suggested a march on Washington. Its purpose was multifaceted; demands included the passage of anti-lynching legislation, integration of the armed forces, and an end to racial discrimination in the war industry as well as segregation in general.

A student of and advocate for peaceful direct action, Randolph was partially motivated by Mahatma Gandhi’s successful tactics. Randolph promised that 50,000 Black people would participate in the march, but it was cancelled when Roosevelt issued the Fair Employment Act. His notion for the march however, continued to develop and influenced other civil rights leaders, including Rustin. Motivated by Randolph’s political philosophy and his own fervent belief in nonviolent protest, Rustin practiced a form of nonviolent protest that he taught Dr. King.

The three men formed an alliance that would have a profound impact on the civil rights movement. Dr. King’s work benefited from the coalitions that Randolph formed, including the establishment of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). Randolph co-founded it with Arnold Aronson, a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, and Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP. Since 1957, the organization has arranged a national legislative campaign for every civil rights law.

When Southern schools ignored the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, Randolph, Dr. King, and Rustin joined forces. Randolph and King organized the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. In 1958 and 1959, Randolph also organized Youth Marches for Integration in Washington, D.C. And, in a move that would prove truly life-altering for all three men, Randolph arranged for Rustin to teach Dr. King how to stage peaceful protests in Alabama and facilitate affiliations with white people who were supportive of his agenda.

Rustin, a gay pacifist who neither broadcast nor hid his lifestyle, was at different times ostracized or expelled by members of Dr. King’s inner circle. Dr. King distanced himself from Rustin in 1960, after Representative William Clayton Powell Jr. threatened to spread a rumor that the two men were lovers if they did not call off a planned march in front of the Democratic National Convention. Randolph remained loyal to Rustin. It was Rustin who made Randolph’s concept for a march on Washington into a reality.

Worried that younger activists were not paying enough attention to the importance of economic standing as they fought for desegregation in the South, Randolph brought his concerns to Rustin and in 1962, the two men began to plan an event that would broach these issues and recognize the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Up to this point, Dr. King had not been fully engaged with many of the other suggestions and overtures made by the two men. He was fully committed to this idea and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held on August 28, 1963.

Despite others' input Randolph and Rustin remained focused on their interpretation of a peaceful event, due to personal philosophy and political pragmatism (they did not want to alienate the Kennedy administration). This involved constant negotiation, including convincing John Lewis to tone down the more militant aspects of his speech, a debate that reportedly continued up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Randolph was the first speaker, declaring “we shall return again and again to Washington in ever growing numbers until total freedom is ours.”

Dr. King was the final speaker. His powerful remarks became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. Randolph and Rustin then concluded the gathering, with Rustin reading a list of civil rights demands. The event remained peaceful; there were only four arrests and all were of white individuals.

As he worked on these civil rights campaigns with Rustin, Randolph remained dedicated to the intersecting labor movement. The two men formed the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), an organization for Black trade unionists, in 1965. Randolph was its first president. He was also president of the BSCP until 1968.

In 1955, he oversaw the BSCP’s merger with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and was elected a vice-president of it. Additionally, Randolph served as president of the Negro American Labor Council from 1960-1966. And, in 1964, President Johnson awarded Randolph the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Randolph died on May 16, 1979, at the age of 90. His wife had died in 1963, and they had no children. He fostered relationships, nurtured burgeoning labor organizations, and bolstered the goals of the civil rights movement. Randolph appreciated that these intentions were intertwined, and his service to them enabled others, like Dr. King, to achieve certain objectives while continuously striving for better progress.


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