Biography of A. Philip Randolph, Labor Movement Leader

A. Philip Randolph
A. Philip Randolph.

 Bettmann/Getty Images

Asa Philip Randolph was born April 15, 1889, in Crescent City, Florida, and died May 16, 1979, in New York City. He was a civil rights and labor activist, known for his role in organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and for heading the March on Washington. He also influenced Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman to issue executive orders that banned discrimination and segregation in the defense industry and the armed forces, respectively.

A. Philip Randolph

  • Full Name: Asa Philip Randolph
  • Occupation: Labor movement leader, civil rights activist
  • Born: April 15, 1889 in Crescent City, Florida
  • Died: May 16, 1979 in New York City
  • Parents: Rev. James William Randolph and Elizabeth Robinson Randolph
  • Education: Cookman Institute
  • Spouse: Lucille Campbell Green Randolph
  • Key Accomplishments: Organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, chair of the March on Washington, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • Famous Quote: “Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”

Early Years

A. Philip Randolph was born in Crescent City, Florida, but grew up in Jacksonville. His father, the Rev. James William Randolph, was a tailor and minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; his mother, Elizabeth Robinson Randolph, was a seamstress. Randolph also had an older brother named James.

Randolph likely inherited his activist streak from his parents, who taught him the importance of personal character, education, and standing up for oneself. He never forgot the night that his parents both armed themselves when a mob set out to lynch a man at the county jail. With a pistol beneath his coat, his father went to the jail to break up the mob. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Randolph stood watch at home with a shotgun.

A. Philip Randolph
President of the Brotherhood A. Philip Randolph, sitting at his desk. Rex Hardy Jr. / Getty Images 

This was not the only way his mother and father influenced him. Knowing that his parents valued education, Randolph excelled in school, as did his brother. They went to the Jacksonville area’s only school for black students at that time, the Cookman Institute. In 1907, he graduated as valedictorian of his class.

An Activist in New York

Four years after high school, Randolph moved to New York City with the hope of becoming an actor, but he gave up on his dream because his parents disapproved. Inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’ book “The Souls of Black Folk,” which explored African American identity, Randolph began to focus on sociopolitical issues. He also concentrated on his personal life, marrying a wealthy widow named Lucille Campbell Green in 1914. She was a businesswoman and a socialist, and she was able to provide financial support for her husband’s activism, including his oversight of a magazine called The Messenger.

The publication had a socialist bent, and Columbia University student Chandler Owen ran it with Randolph. Both men were opposed to World War I and were monitored by the authorities for speaking out against the international conflict, which the United States became involved in during 1917. The war ended the following year, and Randolph pursued other forms of activism.

A. Philip Randolph holds Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union banner
Members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful African-American Labor Union, proudly display their banner at a 1955 ceremony celebrating the organization's 30th anniversary. Asa Philip Randolph (1889-1979), Union president, seen wearing black and white shoes, holds up Brotherhood flag.  Bettmann / Contributor

Starting In 1925, Randolph spent a decade fighting for the unionization of the Pullman porters, the black men who worked as baggage handlers and wait staff in the sleeping cars of trains. Randolph not only knew a great deal about unions, but he also did not work for the Pullman Company, which manufactured most of the railroad cars in the US during the first half of the 1900s. Since he did not have to fear that Pullman would retaliate against him for organizing, the porters thought he’d be a suitable representative for them. In 1935, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters finally formed, a huge victory. No African American labor union had been organized before.

Taking on the White House

Randolph parlayed his success with the Pullman porters into advocacy work for black workers at the federal level. As World War II unfolded, President Franklin Roosevelt would not give an executive order to prohibit racial discrimination in the defense industry. This meant that African American employees in this sector could be excluded from jobs based on race or paid unfairly. So, Randolph asked African Americans to march in Washington, D.C, to protest the president’s inaction against discrimination. Tens of thousands of black people were prepared to take to the streets of the nation’s capital until the president changed his mind. This forced Roosevelt to take action, which he did by signing an executive order on June 25, 1941. Roosevelt also established the Fair Employment Practices Commission to see his order through.

Additionally, Randolph played a key role in getting President Harry Truman to sign the Selective Service Act of 1947. This legislation outlawed racial segregation in the armed forces. During this time, black men and white men served in different units, and the former often were placed in high-risk situations without the proper resources to defend themselves. Desegregating the military was the key to giving black servicemen more opportunity and safety.

Eisenhower meets civil rights activists
US President Dwight Eisenhower (1890 - 1965) meets with Civil Rights leaders at the White House to discuss desegregation, Washington DC, June 23, 1958.  Abbie Rowe / Getty Images

If President Truman had not signed the act, Randolph was ready to get men of all races to take part in mass nonviolent civil disobedience. It helped that Truman was counting on the black vote to win his reelection bid and knew that alienating African Americans would put his campaign at risk. This prompted him to sign the desegregation order.

During the following decade, Randolph continued his activism. The new labor organization the AFL-CIO chose him as vice president in 1955. In this capacity, he continued to advocate for black workers, striving to desegregate labor unions, which had historically excluded African Americans. And in 1960, Randolph founded an organization exclusively focused on black workers’ rights. It was called the Negro American Labor Council, and he served as its president for six years.

The March on Washington

Mahatma Gandhi often gets the credit for influencing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders to take a nonviolent approach to activism, but A. Philip Randolph was an inspiration to civil rights activists, too. Without using violence, he’d ushered in the formation of the first major black labor union and influenced two different presidents to sign executive orders to ban racial discrimination. Knowing how effective Randolph had been, the new crop of black activists followed his example.

March on Washington
August 1963: More than 200,000 protesters gather to demand equal rights for black Americans on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. Among them are Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968) (4th L), A. Philip Randolph (2nd R) as well as Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and Rabbi Joachim Prinz.  MPI / Getty Images

When they called for 1963’s March on Washington, the biggest civil rights demonstration in the history of the United States, they appointed Randolph as chair of the event. There, an estimated 250,000 people turned out to march for jobs and freedom for African Americans, and witnessed King give his "I Have a Dream" speech, arguably his most memorable.

Later Years

While 1963 was certainly a standout year for Randolph because of the March on Washington’s success, it was also a tragic one. His wife, Lucille, died that year. The couple had no children.

Johnson presents Presidential Medal of Freedom to A. Philip Randolph
1964 Wahington, DC: President Johnson presents A. Philp Randolph with the presidential Medal of Freedom. Bettmann  / Contributor

In 1964, Randolph turned 75 years old, but he continued being singled out for his advocacy work on behalf of African Americans. That year, President Lyndon Johnson honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 1968, Randolph presided over the new A. Philip Randolph Institute, which works to garner African American support of trade unions. During this time, Randolph kept his position on the AFL-CIO Executive Council, leaving the role in 1974.

A. Philip Randolph died on May 16, 1979, in New York City. He was 90 years old.

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