A. Philip Randolph
DJ Name: Notorious Porter Patrol
Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but this isn’t a story about MLK because we already know that he had a dream and that he definitely listened to “Politics as Usual” by Jay-Z and “Cranes in the Sky” by Solange. So instead, we’ve decided to talk about A. Philip Randolph this week because he was a Civil Rights activist just like MLK but he’s gotten a lot less historical attention. Welcome back to Historic Shuffle, peeps!
Besides help organize the March on Washington with fellow shuffler Bayard Rustin – which is where MLK belted out his infamous speech to over 250,000 people – A. Philip also founded the country’s first major Black labor union to help give Black workers power to stand up to their employers and demand better wages and working conditions.
So, it’s time to hit pause on your work and hit play on A. Philip Randolph’s favorite playlist and get ready to learn about an oft-overlooked Civil Rights organizer.
Asa Philip Randolph was born on April 15, 1889, in Crescent City, Florida. His dad, James, was a tailor and a minister and his mom, Elizabeth, was a seamstress. Though they never traveled to the Happiest Place on Earth AKA Disneyworld, the fam did relocate to Jacksonville when Asa was just a little baby and that’s basically the same thing, isn’t it? There was a thriving Black community in Jacksonville at that time, but it faced intense racial segregation and violence. There were more lynchings in Florida during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era than anywhere else. And yet, the Randolph fam settled steadfastly into their new home, teaching their young son about the importance of a good education, the content of one’s character rather than their skin color and how to defend himself against ongoing outside mob attacks.
One night, when his parents learned that a mob was forming to lynch a man at the local county jail, Asa sat at home with mom, as she held a shotgun across her lap, while his dad grabbed his pistol and set off outside to prevent the pack from murdering the man. Asa and his brother, James, grew up acing exams and hitting homers. Asa even graduated as valedictorian at the Cookman Institute, a Methodist school founded during Reconstruction as Florida’s first all-Black institution of higher education, in 1907.
Graduation didn’t stop Asa from continuing his studies, even though he was barred from most work besides manual labor in the South. He sang and acted, and he pored over W.E.B. Du Bois’ works, learning the importance of fighting for social equality. At last, he decided that his future lay in the North, where he could pursue a better life for himself. As they say, the North remembers. We know no King but the King of the North whose name is A. Philp Randolph. Orrr, something like that. In 1911, Asa packed up and headed to the concrete jungle where dreams are made, AKA the Big Apple AKA the City of Brotherly Love – wait, no, nix that last one – AKA New York City.
Once there, Asa said “New York, new me” and settled into his new life, which included courting a young widow named Lucille Campbell Green who was a Howard University alum with Bison pride and a shared affinity for his socialist ideals. Two years later, the two tied the knot. Lucille was an early beauty school graduate of self-made Madam C.J. Walker’s, Leila Beauty College. She owned her own beauty salon where she dolled up the dos of Black elite women of Manhattan. Lucille was quite the breadwinner, and Asa wanted her shimmer. Actually, Ms. Musgraves’ song probably doesn’t apply here because though Lucille was the major money maker in their relationship, by all accounts it seems like they had a healthy and happy marriage (probably because they didn’t have children hehe).
Anyway, besides enjoying his new marriage, Asa found a gig working on a switchboard in an apartment building and, always the lifelong student, attended classes at the City College of New York. He also helped organize the Shakespearean Society in Harlem. His parents didn’t approve of his dreams to see his name in sparkling lights, but for a couple of years he transformed into Romeo, Othello or Hamlet, dazzling audiences with his iambic pentameter and nuanced performances.
Asa’s fledgling socialist ideals grew into more concrete concepts as his life in NYC continued. In 1915, he became BFFs with a Columbia University Law School student, Chandler Owen, and the two pals made it official and joined the Socialist Party. They also worked together to publish a magazine called Hotel Messenger, to put forward their views in writing, rally other Black people around their socialist cause, and to publish fellow Black poets and writers. Three years later, Asa and Chandler were briefly jailed for sedition when they spoke out against President Wilson’s policies and participation during World War I.
This was only the beginning of Asa’s rabble-rousing, though. In 1925, he accepted an invitation to speak to a group of porters who worked for the Pullman Palace Car Company, a Chicago-based railroad company. Cho choo! This was a largely Black group of workers who assisted railroad guests — mostly rich white ones — to carry their luggage, shine shoes, set up sleeping arrangements, and so on. This group of porters worked for one of the richest companies in the ole’ US of A in this era, and the porters made zip compared to their fellow white workers and worked in sh*tty conditions. Asa said “these porter wages belong in the porta-potty” and he agreed to help organize them to become The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters AKA the nation’s first predominantly Black labor union to be granted a charter by the American Federation of Labor. Lit.
The union started off strong with porters joining left and right. Everybody wanted in. Over 50% of porters were members, which didn’t make Mr. Pullman very happy so ~naturally~ (and insecurely) he threatened to pull their jobs. When their requests for better wages and working conditions weren’t met, Asa planned a strike for the Brotherhood, but quickly postponed it when once again Mr. Pullman threatened to fire union members and fill their positions with workers he allegedly had on standby. It was a tale as old as time of the rich white man in charge being challenged and flexing with a firing move, but don’t fret as the union didn’t stop its fight there because shortly thereafter a new president by the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oval office. Through the Railway Labor Act of 1934, porters won a collective bargaining agreement and signed a contract with Mr. Pullman that stated he finally recognized the union, would raise pay, and reduce overtime. Bada bing bada boom the Brotherhood was back in business and membership jumped to more than 7,000 porters. Asa maintained the Brotherhood’s affiliation with the American Federation of Labor through 1955.
Now a very recognizable spokesperson for Black Americans, A. Philip Randolph teamed up with Bayard Rustin and other civil rights advocates like a not-so-well known Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to propose and plan a March on Washington, D.C. The initial goal was to convince President Franky to end discrimination in the defense industries so Roosevelt responded with Executive Order 8802, known as the Fair Employment Act, which opened war jobs during WWII to Black workers. Seen as an important and early Civil Rights win-win, Randolph and Rustin were still bummed that the order didn’t apply to discrimination in the actual armed forces. Momentum continued to build and people joined the civil rights movement and gathered in large groups (remember those days?) to hear the likes of Dr. King and Asa speak about desegregation in the military, government agencies, and war industries (think factory jobs to make military supplies like rubber duckies, duh).
It wasn’t until 1948, with a new President named Harry Truman in power, that the U.S. armed forces were desegregated with the passage of the Universal Military Service and Training Act. When the decade of the 50s hit, Asa continued to work with Bayard Rustin and Dr. King to raise awareness for desegregation. Many marches were organized and each time these civil rights leaders taught young people how to object peacefully. All were inspired by the peaceful actions of Gandhi and carried his legacy through their practice of protests.
In 1963, Asa revisited the idea of a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which was eventually held on August 28. Over 250,000 people gathered in the District around the National Mall to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Asa told the crowd they were witnessing the beginning of a new fight, “not only for the Negro, but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life.”
We remember it as a pinnacle point in the Civil Rights Movement and one year after Asa worked with Bayard to spearhead the March on Washington and raise awareness, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. A. Philip Randolph was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson for his lifelong career in activism. Randolph eventually retired as the President of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and quietly lived out the later years of his life in New York City, a not-so-quiet place. He passed away in 1979 at the age of 90. Never afraid to speak out against injustice, A. Philip Randolph encouraged others to do the same and in so doing unionized and united many for a greater cause.