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Asa Philip Randolph: American Leader

November 27, 2017

Lily Anna Blouin

The NRRHoF is creating a series of blog posts during the month of November titled “Take This Hammer: Stories of African American Railroaders.” Our blogs will be part of a year-long worldwide celebration of the opening of the

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture called Lift Every Voice.

Born in Crescent City, Florida, on April 15, 1889, Asa Philip Randolph knew first-hand that the color of one’s skin determined one’s opportunities. The early twentieth century saw some progress toward equality for African Americans, but a violent labor movement in the North and the reign of white supremacy groups (such as the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan) in the South had further divided the nation along class and racial lines.


To combat the limitations of circumstance, his parents emphasized the importance of education and enrolled Asa and his brother, James, in the Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida—one of the only academic high schools for African Americans at the time. Education was a powerful tool, and many believed it was the key to racial equality. Based on the teachings of Booker T. Washington, African Americans believed they would be accepted by their white counterparts when they had proven themselves equal. Washington “urged blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and material prosperity.”[1]


Asa was an exceptional student. He had a knack for public speaking and performance. He was obsessed with history and literature and was often seen reading as he wandered down the street.[2]  He was also valedictorian of the graduating class of 1907. However, despite his academic and intellectual excellence, Asa found himself little better off than those with no education at all. Troubled and frustrated by the seemingly ineffectual teachings of passivity and “self-help,” he turned towards a more radical school of thought.


According to Andrew E. Kersten, Asa was transformed by the writings of W.E.B. DuBois sometime after high school.[3] A fire, it seems accurate to say, was lit within Asa. DuBois provoked outrage and openly rebuked Washington, arguing, “Washington's strategy would serve only to perpetuate white oppression.”[4] He advocated political action and a civil rights agenda and helped to found black advocacy organizations, such as the NAACP. This was the birth of Asa Randolph, the activist—the path to social equality would be not be a passive trot. Progress required an aggressive push.

A. Philip Randolph, c. 1911. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-97538).

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Feeling hindered by the South and determined to lend his support in the fight for equality, Randolph moved to New York City in 1911. He continued his education at the City University of New York (CUNY), where he studied economics and philosophy, and mingled with the progressive thinkers of the day. Harlem in 1911 was a hotbed of political and social activism and Randolph found himself at the heart of it.


At the turn of the century, the radical teachings of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party of America, inspired by the writing of Karl Marx, had “ignited the political imaginations of many people.”[5] Randolph was no exception. According to Marx, a great class struggle would one day overturn the current world order and refashion a more just and equal society. Randolph believed the American working class would ignite that struggle and bring about full citizenship for African Americans in America. He believed the key to racial equality was economic equality.


Randolph looked to the ongoing labor movement as a model for action, advocating protest activism and the need for unity. He literally took the streets, where he gave soap box speeches promoting social and racial equality, and he began to promote his ideas in print as the editor of the Headwaiters and Sidewaiters Society of Greater New York’s monthly magazine, the Messenger. 


By 1914, he had found his calling— “He was going to do three things: organize unions for exploited workers, enter the rough-and-tumble world of New York politics, and motivate African Americans to that they could strive for economic and political independence.” 


Like DuBois, Randolph believed that equality would require action, but his personal philosophy, and the one he would promote for the remainder of his life, differed from DuBois in that it placed the success of the African American people at the feet of the working-class man and women. DuBois had always placed his faith in a small, elite faction, that he called “exceptional men.”[6]


Randolph worked tirelessly to promote his social agenda, but with little success. A 1918 anti-war speaking tour had grabbed the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, but for the most part, Randolph failed to make any headway in his attempts to activate and unify the African American working class. Indeed, when Randolph was asked to be President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids (BSCP) in 1925, Randolph’s “primary qualifications for the job,” according to the AFL-CLI website, “was his reputation for incorruptibility and the fact that he was not a Pullman Company employee—meaning the company could not fire him or buy him off.”[7] He had no real successes to speak of, but his alliance with the BSCP would prove to be a turning point in the history of African American political activism.

At first, Randolph and the BSCP enjoyed some success recruiting members in New York, but the Pullman Company made it clear that any porter or maid interested in unionization risked dismissal. Further efforts to unionize failed due to a deeply embedded distrust of American unions, which had a long and violent history of racial exclusion, and the belief held by many African Americans that the Pullman Company was a “friend of the black community.”[8] The union shrank to almost nothing, but Randolph was convinced of the important role the BSPC would play.


In an issue of the Messenger, dated April 1926, Randolph declared that, “More hinges on the successful consummation of our job than the welfare of the Pullman porters, the destiny of the entire race is involved.”[9]


For more than ten years, Randolph and the men and women of the BSCP struggled to overcome resistance from the Pullman Company and skepticism in the black community, but they continued to use their labor organization as a “vehicle to claim rights of first-class citizenship to a broad audience of black Americans. From the beginning a network emerged…as the BSCP sought to gain the support of middle-class citizens.”[10] Meanwhile, Randolph grew in stature and quickly became one of the “foremost black labor leaders” in America.[11]

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, "Labor Rally," dated May 9, 1937.

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The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 signaled a dramatic change in fortune for organized labor. The National Industrial Recovery Act and the Railroad Labor Act of 1934 had simplified the process of unionization, and provided a legal foundation for black unionization. In 1935, porters and maids voted by a large majority for the Brotherhood over company-managed union representatives. The American Federation of Labor, concerned that the emerging CIO would take advantage of the political leverage that a new black union might offer, granted the BSCP a charter that same year. Two years later, the Brotherhood signed its first contract with the Pullman Company who agreed to recognize the union, raise wages, and lower the working month from 400 to 240 hours. It was the first ever corporate contract with an all-black union.


The success of the Brotherhood provided a model for what historian Beth Tompkins Bates calls “protest politics,” which was grounded in the belief that power could be derived not from passivity but from collective action.[12] This approach would come to define the civil rights movement in America for decades to come.

In 1941, Randolph and the BSCP would use the threat of collective organization to protest discrimination in the defense industry, promising to march 100,000 black American’s through the nation’s capital if President Roosevelt refused to capitulate to African American demands for equality. The effort led to the signing of Executive Order 8802, which “[banned] discriminatory employment practices by Federal agencies and all unions and companies engaged in war-related work.” The order also established the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).[13] It was the first action by the federal government that promoted equal opportunities for African Americans in America. Similar pressure would later press President Truman to end segregation in the military.


When the executive order was issued, Randolph canceled the threatened protest march on Washington, but the BSCP, hoping to harness the momentum generated by the march, formed the March on Washington Movement (MOWM), an all-black activist organization whose primary goal was to secure full-citizenship rights for all African Americans. Randolph would later serve as the chair of the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”

A. Philip Randolph (seated, center) and other leaders of the 1963 March on Washington.

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Randolph would continue his career as a social and labor activist well into the twentieth century, a commanding presence in the civil rights movement admired for his eloquence, courage, and tenacity. He was elected vice president of the newly merged AFL-CIO in 1955. He was also one of the founders of the Negro American Labor Council and served as its president from 1960 to 1966, and in 1964, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson. In 1968, he retired as president of the BSCP and was named president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization established to promote trade unionism in the black community.[14]

Asa Phillip Randolph at the Lincoln Memorial, during 1963's March on Washington

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His determined and patient example earned him the nickname “The American Gandhi.” He died in New York on May 16, 1979.



Sources and additional information:

[1] "Booker T and W.E.B.: The Debate Between W.E.B. DuBois Booker T. Washington ." PBS. Accessed November 18, 2017.


[2] Kersten, Andrew E. A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006, 12.


[3] Kersten,. A. Philip Randolph, 7.


[4] "Booker T and W.E.B.: The Debate Between W.E.B. DuBois Booker T. Washington ." PBS. Accessed November 18, 2017.


[5] Kersten, A. Philip Randolph, 10.


[6] "Booker T and W.E.B.: The Debate Between W.E.B. DuBois Booker T. Washington." PBS. Accessed November 18, 2017.


[7] "A. Philip Randolph." AFL-CIO. Accessed November 24, 2017.


[8] The Pullman Company bought support from black leaders, especially in its home city of Chicago, by donating money to local black organizations. The support worked, and many African Americans believed the company ultimately had the black community’s interest at heart. From "A. Philip Randolph." AFL-CIO. Accessed November 20, 2017.


[9] Tompkins Bates, Beth. Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925–1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001, Introduction.


[10] Tompkins Bates, Beth. Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925–1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001, 15.


[11] "A. Philip Randolph." AFL-CIO. Accessed November 24, 2017.


[12] Tomkins Bates, Pullman Porters, Introduction.


[13] Executive Order 8802 dated June 25, 1941, General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives. Accessed November 31, 2017.


[14] Learn more about the A. Philip Randolph Institute at

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