Continuing the efforts of W.E.B. DuBois, Eugene Debs, and others was A. Philip Randolph. Randolph’s election to President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1929 was just the beginning of his life-long fight for civil rights and workers’ rights for African-Americans.
“Justice is never given; it is exacted and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship.”
– A. Philip Randolph
In his formative years, Randolph moved from Florida to New York City in 1911 and attended the City College of New York becoming a budding Socialist with a strong interest in politics. In 1917, Randolph and his cohort Chandler Owen founded The Messenger, a Socialist radical magazine, which Randolph edited for many years. His work in the magazine sparked the attention of Ashley L. Totten, a Pullman porter who was a member of the Pullman Porter Athletic Association. Totten asked Randolph in 1925 to speak at one of their next meetings, and Randolph agreed.
Ashley’s interest in seeking out Randolph’s help came from the widening unrest among sleeping car porters in New York and other cities over their working conditions and, specifically, over the functioning of the Pullman Company’s five year old Plan of Employee Representation. The contract was tailored to the interests of the company owners. Totten and Roy Lancaster attended a wage conference the previous year as delegates, and were disappointed that the conference was not a true bargaining forum. Totten then began efforts to find a way of organizing a real trade union for the porters. When he met Randolph, he realized that Randolph had attributes, such as his dress and manner of speech, that could make all the difference in negotiations with the Pullman Company with which all previous attempts by porters to organize had failed.
Randolph was reluctant to agree to help the workers of the Pullman Company organize because all of his previous attempts to organized had failed, and he thought the Pullman Company was extremely powerful to go up against. Randolph was resolved to continue as a propagandist and continue his work with The Messenger, and he offered to write two articles about them in The Messenger. As he researched the history of the porters’ grievances, Randolph was convinced to help them, along with pressure from Totten when the articles were well received by porters in New York. He took on the challenge because no one else seemed willing to take up the porters’ cause, and he saw the porters as his last chance to promote the idea of labor unionism among black workers. So, on August 25, 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) held their first mass meeting of over 500 people in the auditorium of the Imperial Lodge of Elks in New York.
The railroad brotherhoods offered one of the few opportunities for black workers, but did not give these men basic worker rights. Randolph worked arduously for ten years to negotiate an agreement with the Pullman Company and to begin negotiations with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), all the while maintaining the trust and support of the BSCP members. The collective bargaining contract was signed with the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1935.
In 1936, the BSCP finally received a national union charter from the AFL after building their membership to 5,000. They were affiliated for a number of years previously through directly chartered local unions but were not considered “sufficiently strong to warrant the issuance of a national union charter” sooner. This was because Randolph’s first attempt in 1926 to affiliate the BSCP with the AFL was blocked by the Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ Alliance which claimed jurisdiction over the porters. Although the Hotel Alliance’s international charter did officially give them jurisdiction over the sleeping car porters, their constitution did not allow black members. So, the option of forming an alliance with the Hotel Alliance did not promise equality to the porters, and most likely they would be a segregated auxiliary union. Randolph reapplied in 1928, and AFL President William Green agreed to amend the Hotel Alliance’s charter so that the AFL would be able to affiliate with the BSCP as an independent union. However, the porters did not have enough members or money to meet the AFL’s requirements at that time, so they were accepted as 13 federal locals. Randolph’s decision to affiliate with the AFL was challenged by the black community because the AFL was known to promote racial exclusion. But Randolph persisted that it was an important, though small, step that would put him in a position to fight segregation within the AFL organization.
Randolph’s success led him to become extremely influential in the civil rights movement. He established the March on Washington Movement, to organize marches as nonviolent mass actions in opposition to discrimination and racism. In 1941, Randolph threatened to lead a march in Washington, DC but cancelled it after winning a major victory when President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order banning discrimination in the federal government and the defense industry. Another Executive Order was issued in 1948 by President Truman which banned racial segregation in the armed forces.
Randolph’s influence and prestige was invaluable to the civil rights movement because he was able to form interracial coalitions of blacks and white liberals. He created, joined, and participated in a number of committees and councils to gain and organize support including: the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), National Council for a Permanent FEPC, League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation, and the AFL-CIO’s Negro American Labor Council. He worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin in the 1950s and 1960s to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march drew over 200,000 people who came to support racial and economic equality.
Understanding the important link between trade unions and economic policy, Randolph worked diligently to improve black workers’ rights in the unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Unions were the primary avenue for economic advancement for the working class, including black workers. As vice-president of the AFL-CIO Negro American Labor Council, Randolph was actively working against union discrimination at Executive Council meetings, often clashing with President George Meany. Though Meany recognized the just cause of civil rights, he was met with political and organizational opposition from all-white unions.
Co-founded by Randolph and Bayard Rustin in 1964, the A. Philip Randolph Institute continues the legacy of Randolph’s life and work.
For more information about the relationship of the civil rights movement and the labor movement, visit our exhibit “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” in person or online or email us at email@example.com.
Additional resources for Randolph:
- Anderson, Jervis. A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. New York, 1972.
- Brazeal, Brailsford R. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. New York, 1946.
- Hanley, Sally. A. Philip Randolph. (Black Americans of Achievement series.) New York, 1989.
- Harris, William H. Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925-37. Illinois, 1977.
- Pfeffer, Paula F. A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Louisiana, 1990.
- Santino, Jack. Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: Stories of Black Pullman Porters. Illinois, 1989.
- Chicago History Museum
Chicago Division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters records, 1925–69
- Library of Congress
A. Philip Randolph papers, 1909-1979
- Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library
A. Philip Randolph Collection
- University of Maryland, Labor Collections
AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department records, 1946-2000, Series 11: A. Philip Randolph Institute, 1963-1980 (RG9-003)
AFL-CIO Photographic Prints collection (RG96-001)
Search also https://archives.lib.umd.edu/
Jen Eidson is a Special Collections Processing Archivist in the University of Maryland Libraries.