When Asa Philip Randolph died in 1979, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin said, “With the exception of W.E.B. Du Bois, he was probably the greatest civil rights leader of this century until Martin Luther King.”
Randolph, whose career spanned through the Harlem Renaissance and the modern Civil Rights Movement was a prominent leader in the American labor and socialist political parties.
Randolph was born on April 15, 1889 in Crescent City, Fl. His father, James William Randolph was a tailor and minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His mother, Elizabeth worked as a seamstress.
When Randolph was two, his family moved to Jacksonville.
Randolph, along with his older brother, James, attended Cookman Institute in Jacksonville. Following graduation, Randolph worked odd jobs. After reading The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois, Randolph decided to move to New York City. Arriving in 1911, Randolph became a student at the City College of New York and worked various jobs.
A Believer in Socialism
While living in New York, Randolph was introduced to socialism. Working in collaboration with Chandler Owen, Randolph developed a belief system arguing that people are have true freedom and independence when they are not burdened by financial restraints.
The beliefs shared by Randolph and Owen were very different than other civil rights leaders of their time—the duo stressed that collective action was vital for African-Americans to obtain equality in United States’ society.
During this time, Randolph and Owen opened an employment office in Harlem, providing job training to African-Americans who had come to North as part of the Great Migration.
In 1917, Randolph, along with Owen began publishing the Messenger. The monthly news magazine was considered so radical that the U.S. Department of Justice remarked that the Messenger was “the most able and the most dangerous of all Negro publications.” Every month the pages of the Messenger would feature editorials and articles concerning the ongoing campaign against lynching, opposition to United States’ participation in World War I, and appeals to African-American workers to join radical socialist unions.
Soon after Randolph and Owen founded the Messenger, they began featuring the work of Harlem Renaissance writers.
In 1917, Randolph began organizing workers when he helped develop a union for elevator operators in New York City. By 1919, Randolph was the president of the National Brotherhood of Workers of America. This union organized African-American shipyard and dockworkers throughout the Virginia Tidewater area.
However, Randolph’s chief success as a labor organizer was with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). The organization named Randolph as its president in 1925 and came at a time when railroad travel had increased greatly throughout the United States. As a result, the Pullman Company employed many African-American men to work as porters. However, not being unionized allowed the company to underpay African-American men.
But starting the union was not easy. Within the first year of being a union, an estimated 50 percent of porters joined the organization. However, the Pullman Company was not happy and responded by violent acts and firing its unionized porters.
In 1928, Randolph planned a strike for the BSCP after failing to win a mediation under the Railway Labor At. After the Pullman Company realized the strike was planned, the company threatened to hire new employees. The strike never happened and union membership dropped drastically.
However, in 1934, amendments to the Railway Labor Act were made, giving porters rights under federal law. Soon after, union membership increased to more than 7,000. And after years of struggle, the Pullman Company began negotiating a contract with the BSCP in 1935. Two years later, a contract agreement was reached—employees received a raise, a shorter workweek and overtime.
Civil Rights Activism
Randolph's work as a union leader with the BSCP helped him rise to national prominence. In 1941, Randolph collaborated with leaders such as Bayard Rustin and A.J. Muste to stage a March on Washington. The purpose of the march was to protest against racial discrimination in the war industries, opportunities for employment in defense industries, find support for an anti-lynching law and desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces. However, the march was canceled after Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Act or Executive Order 8802, which desegregated employment in war industries.
The following year, Randolph organized another campaign against military discrimination. Two years later, Randolph supported the Philadelphia Transit Strike of 1944 which ended in African-American workers being given the opportunity to work in positions only held by white employees.
In 1948, Harry Truman abolished racial segregation in the armed services by issuing Executive Order 9981. Truman's actions were a direct result of Randolph's commitment to using various tactics to protest against racial discrimination.
By 1950, Randolph was working with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Arnold Aronson to establish the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), an organization that developed national campaigns to support civil rights legislation.
On August 28, 1963, Randolph's vision for a national protest was achieved. The March on Washington was held on August 28, 1963 and an estimated 300,000 people attended the rally against poverty, racism and social injustice throughout the United States.
Marriage and Family
In 1913, Randolph married Lucille Campbell Green. The couple had no children.