A. Phillip Randolph was an African American civil rights activist who played a pivotal role in the early African American civil rights movement and led the first predominantly African American labor union. A fearless and bold leader, he fought relentlessly for the rights of African American laborers, demanding equal rights and better working conditions and wages for them. He was a major figure in the American labor movement and led the struggle for equality and justice for the black community. Along with another activist, Chandler Owen, he founded an employment agency for blacks in order to boost their chances of getting meaningful employment. He organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a predominantly black labor union. A man of strong character and conviction, he credited his parents for teaching him the importance of education, equality, justice and freedom. He was a bright young man but was unable to find meaningful jobs after school solely because of his color and thus he resolved to take up the cause of social equality. He dedicated his life to fighting for social justice and to empower the African American community so that blacks could live with dignity. He headed The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 which ultimately helped the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964).
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on April 15, 1889, as the second son of James William Randolph and his wife Elizabeth Robinson. His father, a tailor, was also a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, while his mother was a seamstress. He was raised in a thriving African American community in Florida.
His parents instilled in him a love for equality and freedom. He went to the Cookman Institute along with his brother where he proved to be a brilliant student excelling not only in academics, but also in sports, drama and music. He graduated in 1907.
For a while he harbored the dream of becoming an actor given his interest in drama and music. However, after graduation he had to work in a number of petty jobs as it was not possible for him to find meaningful jobs being a black.
He moved to New York City in 1911 where he enrolled at the City College to study English Literature and sociology. He worked at manual jobs during the day and attended classes at night.
He was an avid reader who read the works of social and political thinkers including Karl Marx and W. E. B. Du Bois, and was especially influenced by the latter’s book, ‘The Souls of Black Folk’.
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He became acquainted with a like-minded person, Chandler Owen, a Columbia University law student, with whom he founded an employment agency called the Brotherhood of Labor in 1912 in an attempt to organize black workers.
Along with Owen he also founded a magazine, ‘The Messenger’ in 1917 after United States entered the World War I. Through this magazine which was started with the help of the Socialist Party of America, he called for more positions in the armed forces for blacks and also demanded higher wages for them.
After the war ended, he lectured at the Rand School of Social Science in New York. He also worked towards unionizing the black workers as he believed that unions were the best way for blacks to improve their condition.
He was made the president of the National Brotherhood of Workers of America in 1919. It was a union which was organized by the African American shipyard and dock workers in the Tidewater region of Virginia. The union, however, had to be dissolved in 1921 due to the pressure of the American Federation of Labor.
He founded and presided over The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in 1925. Through his works with the first predominantly black labor union, he became one of the leaders in the civil rights movement in America.
Along with Bayard Rustin he led the March on Washington Movement (MOWM), (1941–1946). Though the movement did not lead to any actual march during that period, it convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ban discrimination in the defense industries during World War II.
In 1963, he headed The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech.
He led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 which was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in the United States history. Thousands of Americans, most of them blacks, participated in the march which ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Awards & Achievements
He was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Spingarn Medal in 1942.
President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Randolph with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in September 1964.
He was named Humanist of the Year in 1970 by the American Humanist Association.
Personal Life & legacy
He met Lucille Campbell Green, a widow, who was a Howard University graduate with a keen interest in socialist politics. They got married in 1913. His wife was supportive of his activism and earned enough money to support them both, leaving him with ample time to devote to his socialist activities. They did not have any children.
He died on May 16, 1979 at the ripe old age of 90.
The A. Philip Randolph Career Academy in Philadelphia, and the A. Philip Randolph Career and Technician Center in Detroit are named in his honor.