Asa Philip Randolph brought the gospel of trade unionism to millions of African American households. Randolph led a 10-year drive to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and served as the organization's first president. Randolph directed the March on Washington movement to end employment discrimination in the defense industry and a national civil disobedience campaign to ban segregation in the armed forces. The nonviolent protest and mass action effort inspired the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Asa Philip Randolph was born April 15, 1889, in Crescent City, Fla., the second son of the Rev. James William Randolph, a tailor and ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and Elizabeth Robinson Randolph, a skilled seamstress.
In 1891, the family moved to Jacksonville, which had a thriving, well-established African American community. From his father, Randolph learned that color was less important than a person's character and conduct. From his mother, he learned the importance of education and of defending oneself physically, if necessary. Randolph remembered vividly the night his mother sat in the front room of their house with a loaded shotgun across her lap, while his father tucked a pistol under his coat and went off to prevent a mob from lynching a man in the local county jail.
Asa and his brother, James, were superior students. The Randolph brothers attended the Cookman Institute in East Jacksonville, for years the only academic high school for African Americans in Florida. Asa excelled in literature, drama and public speaking; starred on the school's baseball team; sang solos with its choir; and was valedictorian of the 1907 graduating class.
After graduation, Randolph worked odd jobs and devoted his time to singing, acting and reading. W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk convinced him that the fight for social equality was more important than almost anything else. He moved to New York City in 1911 to become an actor but gave up after failing to win his parents' approval. Columbia University student Chandler Owen shared Randolph's intellectual interests and became his close collaborators.
In 1914, Randolph courted and married Mrs. Lucille E. Green, a widow, Howard University graduate and entrepreneur who shared his socialist politics and earned enough money to support them both. The couple had no children.
Randolph joined the Socialist Party and began to harangue the crowds at Harlem's soapbox corner (135th Street and Lenox Avenue) about socialism and the importance of militant class-consciousness. In January 1917, William White, president of the Headwaiters and Sidewaiters Society of Greater New York, asked them to edit a monthly magazine for the society, Hotel Messenger. Randolph and Owen dropped "Hotel" from the masthead and in November 1917 published the first issue of the Messenger, which soon became known as "one of the most brilliantly edited magazines in the history of American Negro journalism."
Their magazine provided an outlet for those who, like Randolph and Owen, were opposed to both the cautious elitism of the NAACP and the utopian populism of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association. By now established figures in the Socialist Party in New York, Randolph and Owen embarked on a nationwide anti-war speaking tour in 1918 that brought them to the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice and almost got them arrested.
In June 1925, a group of Pullman porters, the all-black service staff of the Pullman sleeping cars, approached Randolph and asked him to lead their new organization, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph agreed. Besides his abiding interest in and knowledge of unions, Randolph's primary qualification for the job was his reputation for incorruptibility and the fact that he was not a Pullman Company employee—meaning the company could not fire him or buy him off.
For the next 10 years, Randolph led an arduous campaign to organize the Pullman porters, which resulted in the certification of the BSCP as the exclusive collective bargaining agent of the Pullman porters in 1935. Randolph called it the "first victory of Negro workers over a great industrial corporation."
Randolph became the most widely known spokesperson for black working-class interests in the country. In December 1940, with President Franklin Roosevelt refusing to issue an executive order banning discrimination against black workers in the defense industry, Randolph called for "10,000 loyal Negro American citizens" to march on Washington, D.C. Support grew so quickly that soon he was calling for 100,000 marchers to converge on the capital. Pressed to take action, President Roosevelt issued an executive order on June 25, 1941, six days before the march was to occur, declaring "there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin." Roosevelt also set up the Fair Employment Practices Commission to oversee the order.
Six years later, after the passage of the Selective Service Act of 1947, Randolph demanded that the government integrate the armed forces. He founded the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation and urged young men, both black and white, to "refuse to cooperate with a Jim Crow conscription service." Threatened with widespread civil disobedience and needing the black vote in his 1948 re-election campaign, President Harry Truman on July 26, 1948, ordered an end to military discrimination "as quickly as possible."
The March on Washington movement and Randolph's call for civil disobedience to end segregation in the armed forces helped convince the next generation of civil rights activists that nonviolent protests and mass demonstrations were the best way to mobilize public pressure. Randolph was, in this sense, the true "father of the civil rights movement" in the United States. The movement recognized his role by naming him the chair of the 1963 March on Washington, at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and by heeding his advice to cooperate in keeping the march nonviolent.
Randolph was elected a vice president of the newly merged AFL-CIO in 1955. He used his position to push for desegregation and respect for civil rights inside the labor movement as well as outside. He was one of the founders of the Negro American Labor Council and served as its president from 1960 to 1966.
In 1964 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson.
Retiring as president of the BSCP in 1968, Randolph was named the president of the recently formed A. Philip Randolph Institute, established to promote trade unionism in the black community. He continued to serve on the AFL-CIO Executive Council until 1974.
He died in New York City on May 16, 1979 at the age of 90.