The pioneer of the modern civil rights movement was an African-American labor leader named A. Philip Randolph. “A” stood for Asa.
As an intellectual committed to racial and social justice shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, he co-founded a magazine called The Messenger in 1917. Soon he wanted to build an African-American institution that could animate his ideas, and he founded the first all Black union called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Despite no right to unionize and unrelenting opposition from the employer and a constant struggle, the union withstood and held up for 4 decades until the work of the members was discontinued.
At the same time with W.E.B. DuBois exiled to the USSR Randolph, became the most important civil rights leader at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was a very powerful political force. It was a very dangerous time for anyone committed to racial justice – especially a Black leader. But Randolph led the fight for Black unionism and civil rights.
At the end of WWII he proposed a giant March on Washington for civil rights. President Truman met with Randolph and said the nation couldn’t stand such an event because of the Cold War.
Randolph wisely used the President’s opposition to demand and win desegregation of the military – the biggest civil rights victory since Reconstruction.
The March went forward in August of 1963. Most people remember that march for Dr. King’s speech, but the chairman of the march was Randolph, and his African-American quasi-openly gay assistant, Bayard Rustin, organized and coordinated the march. And, in fact, when President Johnson announced HIS Civil Rights Act of 1964, he used the theme of that march “We Shall Overcome.”
What almost nobody knows is the role leaders of The Brotherhood played behind the scenes in the broader Civil Rights struggle. One of his shop stewards E.D. Nixon was the Chair of the Montgomery Improvement Association. It was E.D. Nixon who recruited Rosa Parks to the Movement and sent her to the Highlander Folk School for nonviolence training. She didn’t sit at the front of the bus because she was tired; it was planned to kick off the campaign for equal treatment. Then E.D. Nixon went to the 23 year old pastor of Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in his first pastorate and talked Dr. King into leading the boycott.
Randolph’s life was one of courage, determination, compassion, vision and GREAT organizing.
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