Asa Philip Randolph was born in Crescent City, Florida, on April 15, 1889. The son of a Methodist minister, he was educated locally before moving to New York City where he studied economics and philosophy at the City College. His coursework exposed him to the teachings of the radical Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party of America. Randolph became fired with enthusiasm for labor organizing.
In 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters asked Randolph to become president of their fledgling union. He enjoyed success recruiting members in New York, but the Pullman Company made it clear that any porter or maid interested in the union risked dismissal. Further efforts to unionize failed and the union shrank to almost nothing.
The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 signaled a dramatic change of fortune for organized labor. The National Industrial Recovery Act and the Emergency Railroad Transportation Act of 1933 simplified the process of gaining union recognition. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters applied to the Pullman Company to be recognized as the official bargaining agent for porters and maids.
In 1935, porters and maids voted by a large majority for the Brotherhood. Through two years of negotiations, Randolph patiently and persuasively led union delegates in talks with the Pullman Company. Pullman finally agreed to recognize the union and to raise wages while lowering the working month from 400 to 240 hours.
In June 1941 after Randolph threatened to organize a march on Washington, President Roosevelt issued an executive order ending discrimination in all industries working on government contracts. Similarly, his pressure led President Truman to end segregation in the military. In later years, Randolph became a commanding presence in the civil rights movement, an elder statesman admired for his eloquence, courage, and tenacity. His determined patient example earned him the nickname “The American Gandhi.” Randolph died in New York on May 16, 1979.
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