By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University
Black labor activist Asa Philip Randolph’s parents were active in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and they taught Asa to abide by the scriptures, to heed Jesus’s word in the New Testament, and to embrace the wisdom of the prophets in the Old; this meant fighting racial injustice and defending oneself, as well as one’s community, against the depravity of white supremacy.
The Randolphs sent Asa and his brother to Cookman Institute in East Jacksonville—the first educational institution for African Americans in Florida. Founded in 1872 to teach those who had been enslaved, Cookman favored the liberal arts over the industrial sciences.
Asa thrived at the school, excelling in drama and public speaking. His extracurricular activities included playing on the baseball team and singing in the choir. Few were surprised when he was named valedictorian in 1907. But his parents were surprised four years later when he declared he was moving to New York City to pursue a career in acting. They let him relocate, but they nixed the whole acting thing.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
Like so many others who migrated to New York City in the early decades of the 20th century, Randolph became deeply engaged in Black liberation debates. He gravitated toward socialism, evangelizing the virtues of radical class consciousness from atop a soapbox on the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. And starting in 1917, he used the pages of the Messenger magazine, which he cofounded, to give voice to his radical ideas.
Randolph’s belief in the centrality of labor to Black liberation led him to accept an invitation from a group of Pullman porters to lead their nascent union. Called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the organization sought to gain collective bargaining rights from the Pullman Company, which monopolized railroad car manufacturing and passenger train transportation.
Randolph took the helm of the Brotherhood in 1925. He spent the first few years building support for the union among Black porters and members of the broader Black community. Many in both groups saw the paternalism of the Pullman Company as far less egregious than other forms of institutionalized racism. Their view was to leave well enough alone. But Randolph couldn’t do that. That approach to racism was anathema to who he was, to how his parents raised him. Channeling their spirit, he pressed on, convincing people to support the Brotherhood. In 1937, the Pullman Company finally conceded and recognized the group.
Protesting Racial Discrimination
Randolph had built the largest African American union in the country. This earned him a seat at the table when a delegation of Black leaders, including the NAACP’s Walter White and the National Urban League’s T. Arnold Hill, met with President Roosevelt in September 1940 to lobby for nondiscrimination in defense hiring and for the desegregation of the military. Roosevelt balked at the suggestions. He refused to interfere with the hiring practices of defense contractors or the Jim Crow policies of the armed forces.
Randolph walked away from the meeting deeply disappointed. He also walked away with an idea: Perhaps the president would listen to a larger delegation of African Americans—a much larger delegation of African Americans.
On January 25, 1941, just three weeks after Roosevelt addressed the joint session of Congress, Randolph called on African Americans to march on Washington DC. He asked them to gather at the Capitol on July 1, 1941, to protest racial discrimination in the defense industries and segregation in the military.
Randolph’s March on Washington
It was a bold proposal, far more aggressive than any previous mass action. This was a call for nonviolent civil disobedience. The demonstrators would do more than use signs and speeches to convey their displeasure with the racist status quo. They would register their frustration with racial discrimination, and make clear their determination to bring about change, by disrupting government. If Black people could not work, neither would federal officials.
Randolph envisioned his March on Washington as an all-Black affair. He also saw it as a grassroots effort. It would be organized locally, from the bottom up rather than the top down. National organizations like the NAACP could assist, but they could not lead. And it would revolve around working-class Black people, the group impacted the most by racial discrimination in defense manufacturing.
Skepticism about the March
Randolph’s plan drew skepticism from national civil rights leaders, including the NAACP’s Walter White, as well as from a handful of Black newspapers, most notably the Pittsburgh Courier. They doubted the wisdom of an all-Black approach and questioned the ability of the grassroots to execute something so ambitious.
The proposal also drew criticism from supporters of the president, who felt that even talking about such a thing undermined the effort to prepare the nation for war. Roosevelt, meanwhile, simply ignored it, believing it to be too grand a scheme to ever come to pass.
Randolph was undeterred by the skepticism. What others thought impossible, he knew he could do. And he was unflinching in the face of criticism. What others thought he should not do, he knew he had to do.
Common Questions about Asa Philip Randolph
Asa Philip Randolph’s belief in the centrality of labor to Black liberation led him to accept an invitation from a group of Pullman porters to lead their nascent union. Called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the organization sought to gain collective bargaining rights from the Pullman Company, which monopolized railroad car manufacturing and passenger train transportation.
Asa Philip Randolph, along with the NAACP’s Walter White and the National Urban League’s T. Arnold Hill, met with President Roosevelt in September 1940 to lobby for nondiscrimination in defense hiring and for the desegregation of the military.
On January 25, 1941, Asa Philip Randolph called on African Americans to march on Washington DC. He asked them to gather at the Capitol on July 1, 1941, to protest racial discrimination in the defense industries and segregation in the military.