A. Philip Randolph was a labor leader and social activist who fought for the rights of African-American laborers, including better wages and working conditions.
A. Philip Randolph was born Asa Philip Randolph on April 15, 1889, in Crescent City, Florida. He was the second son of James Randolph, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Elizabeth, both of whom were staunch supporters of equal rights for African Americans.
In 1891, the Randolph family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where Asa would live for most of his youth, and where he would eventually attend the Cookman Institute, one of the first institutions of higher education for blacks in the country.
After graduating from Cookman, in 1911, Randolph moved to the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in the hopes of becoming an actor. During this time, he studied English literature and sociology at City College; held a variety of jobs, including as an elevator operator, a porter and a waiter; and developed his rhetorical skills.
In 1912, Randolph made one of his earliest significant political moves when he founded an employment agency called the Brotherhood of Labor with Chandler Owen–a Columbia University law student who shared Randolph's socialist political views–as a means of organizing black workers. He began his efforts when, while working as a waiter on a coastal steamship, he organized a rally against their impoverished living conditions.
In 1913, Randolph married an intellectual Howard graduate named Lucille Green, and shortly thereafter organized the Shakespearean Society in Harlem. He would play several title roles in subsequent productions by the group. In 1917, during World War I, Randolph and Chandler Owen founded a political magazine, The Messenger, and began publishing articles calling for the inclusion of more blacks in the armed forces and war industry, and demanding higher wages. Randolph also tried to unionize African-American shipyard workers in Virginia and elevator operators in New York City during this time.
After the war ended, Randolph lectured at the Rand School of Social Science. In 1920 and 1922, he unsuccessfully ran for offices in New York State on the Socialist Party ticket. By this time, Randolph had also become more convinced than ever that unions would be the best way for African Americans to improve their lot.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
In 1925, Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Serving as its president, he sought to gain the union's official inclusion in the American Federation of Labor, the affiliates of which, at that time, frequently barred African Americans from membership.
The BSCP met with resistance primarily from the Pullman Company, which was the largest employer of blacks at that time. But Randolph battled on, and in 1937, won membership in the AFL, making the BSCP the first African-American union in the United States. Randolph withdrew the union from the AFL the following year, however, in protest of ongoing discrimination within the organization, and then turned his attention toward the federal government.
Taking on the Federal Government
During the 1940s, Randolph twice used mass protest as a means of influencing the policies of the federal government. Following the United States' entrance into World War II, he organized the March on Washington to protest discrimination in the war industry workforce.
Randolph called off the march after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that banned racial discrimination on government defense factories and established the first Fair Employment Practices Committee.
After World War II, Randolph again took on the federal government by organizing the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. That group's actions eventually led President Harry S. Truman to issue a 1948 executive order banning racial segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Fighting for Civil Rights
During the 1950s, Randolph served as a principal member of various labor boards, but also began to devote his time to civil rights work. In 1957, he organized a prayer pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to civil rights issues in the South, and began organizing the first Youth March for Integrated Schools.
In 1963, Randolph was a principal organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which he would speak to a crowd of nearly 250,000 supporters. He shared the podium that day with Martin Luther King Jr., who would deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the event. Randolph and King were among the handful of civil rights leaders to meet with President John F. Kennedy after the march.
The following year, for these and other civil rights efforts, Randolph was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Soon after, he founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization aimed at studying the causes of poverty. In 1966, at a White House conference, he proposed a poverty-elimination program called the “Freedom Budget.”
Retirement and Death
Suffering from a heart condition and high blood pressure, Randolph resigned from his more than 40-year tenure as president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1968. He also retired from public life. He then moved from Harlem to New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, and spent the next few years writing his autobiography until his health worsened, forcing him to stop.
A. Philip Randolph died in bed at his New York City home on May 16, 1979, at age 90. He was cremated, and his ashes were interred at the A. Philip Randolph Institute in Washington, D.C.
April 15, 1889
May 16, 1979
- Attended the all-black high school Cookman Institute.
- Excelled in literature, drama, and public speaking; he also starred on the school’s baseball team, sang solos with the school choir, and was valedictorian of the 1907 graduating class.
- Emerged as one of the most visible spokespeople for African-American civil rights.
- Developed what would become his distinctive form of civil rights activism, which emphasized the importance of collective action as a way for black people to gain legal and economic equality.
- Helped organize the Shakespearean Society in Harlem.
- Organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African-American labor union.
- Heavily influenced by the W.E.B. DuBois book The Souls of Black Folk.