The Civil Rights Legacy of A. Philip Randolph

When the topic of the Civil Rights Era is brought up, who is the first person you think of?

Perhaps you think of Martin Luther King Jr., for his unwavering commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience.  Maybe you think of Malcolm X, for his advocacy of black empowerment and self-sufficiency.  Maybe it’s Rosa Parks, whose leadership during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 helped to raise awareness of the civil rights struggles to a wider national and international audience.

One name that may not be immediately conjured up is Asa Philip Randolph–better known as A. Philip Randolph.  While Randolph made critical contributions to the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and ‘60s–including co-organizing the March on Washington in 1963–his impact on the fight for civil rights for marginalized populations spanned across many decades between the early and mid-20th century.

Born in 1889 in Northern Florida, Randolph committed his early years to excelling in academics and learning about the intersectionalities between social and economic injustices that defined the black experience throughout the country.  After moving to New York City in his early twenties, Randolph became more actively involved in the growing labor movements of the 1910s and ‘20s and utilized his positions to advocate for greater economic justice for African-Americans.  During this period, Randolph helped to open an employment office in Harlem to provide job training for black residents, including those who had recently migrated from agricultural regions of the Deep South.

Randolph continued to advocate for black labor rights through the 1930s, when he organized black-led labor unions designed to protect the rights of African-American laborers in multiple different industries, including the railway and shipping industries.  As Randolph’s stature and influence grew during this period, he solicited support for black economic and labor rights at the highest levels of power.  Just as the United States was preparing to formally enter World War II, Randolph met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 and successfully lobbied for the passage of an executive order that banned discrimination in the defense industries.  Seven years later, after the war had ended, Randolph worked with President Harry S. Truman to formally ban racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces.

While Randolph did expand his areas and methods of activism as the Civil Rights Movement came into full force, including building a close alliance with Martin Luther King, Jr. and helping to organize local civil rights marches in Washington D.C. and the South, he remained committed to his long-term mission of securing labor and economic justice for African-Americans.  In the aftermath of the March on Washington (formally titled “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”), Randolph helped to co-publish “A Freedom Budget for All Americans,” a civil rights manifesto that outlined broad, ambitious societal goals including the abolition of poverty, living wages for all workers and guaranteed housing and healthcare for all Americans.    

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David Biel, Candidate for Master of Library & Information Science

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