Today marks the actual calendar day of the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In honor of that day, we republish Al Shanker’s tribute to A. Philip Randolph, the director of the March, on the occasion of Randolph’s passing in 1979. One of the themes of Shanker’s comments is the distinctive place of A. Philip Randolph in the African-American freedom struggle, distinguished from Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, by his focus on the empowerment of African-American working people and his commitment to non-violent, mass action as the means of empowerment. One of the lesson plans the Shanker Institute has published for teaching the 1963 March focuses precisely on this distinctive contribution of Randolph. Other lesson plans look at Randolph’s close partner, Bayard Rustin, who was the organizing genius behind the March, and examine the alliance between the labor movement and civil rights movement which made the March a success. All of the Shanker Institute lesson plans can be read here.
It may be said – I think without exaggeration – that no American in this century has done more to eliminate racial discrimination in our society and to improve the condition of working people than did A. Philip Randolph, who died this week at the age of 90.
For A. Philip Randolph, a man of quiet eloquence with dignity in every gesture, freedom and justice were never granted people. They had to be fought for in struggles that were never-ending. And progress was something that had to be measured in terms of tangible improvements in people’s lives, in the condition of society generally, and in the quality of human relationships.
Randolph never allowed himself to be distracted from his central purpose or to indulge in self-delusion. He distinguished himself in his early years by his refusal to accommodate his ideas to the national mood resistance to racial progress. He dissented from three trends that were then popular among different elements of the black population: Booker T. Washington’s resigned acceptance of inferior status for blacks; Marcus Garvey’s excapist “Back-to-Africa” movement; and W. E. B. DuBois’ elitist approach of educating “the talented tenth” among blacks. Randolph looked to “the masses,” as he would say, and devoted all of his energies to bringing them into the struggle for racial equality and economic betterment.
Through his accomplishments, he not only ushered in the modern civil rights movement, but also transformed the labor movement into a powerful ally of the drive for racial equality. His first great achievement was the organization of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1937. It was a 12-year struggle against tremendous odds. But having won it, Randolph did not stop there. The once-servile porters, he said, would become “the spearhead which will make possible the organization of Negro workers.” From his base with the porters and his position within the American Federation of Labor, Randolph pressed forward the cause of organizing black workers and eliminating segregation from the union ranks. Significantly, he never joined the CIO with John L. Lewis (as the obituary in The New York Times mistakenly said he did). He took the position that since the fight for integration was in the AFL, that was where he belonged. Year after year he pressed the point that only a fully integrated labor movement would be a strong and united labor movement, and in the end he prevailed. The labor movement not only supports apprenticeship and equal employment programs, but has been a major force in the fight for civil rights legislation and against the Haynesworth and Carswell nominations to the Supreme Court. It also supports the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which strives to mobilize black workers as a political force – one of Randolph’s life-long objectives.
Randolph also understood that the porters “constituted the key to unlocking the door of a nationwide struggle for Negro rights.” The Brotherhood was not just a union but a network of organizers who could carry the message of racial equality to all corners of the land. Though no one had ever before organized a massive civil rights demonstration in America, President Roosevelt took seriously Randolph’ s threat to do so if blacks were not granted equal opportunities in the defense industry. Roosevelt complied with Randolph’s demand and signed an executive order outlawing discrimination in defense plants in 1941. Seven years later, in 1948, Randolph once again successfully used the tactic of mass protest when he forced President Truman to issue an executive order integrating the armed forces.
These gains, and the experience with the effective use of mass pressure, set the stage for the civil rights movement. It was entirely fitting that the March on Washington in 1962, which was the culmination of the civil rights movement, was organized by Randolph and his colleague, Bayard Rustin. With this march, and with the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, the legal foundation
of segregation in American life was dismantled once and for all.
Randolph’s effectiveness as a leader was the result of the forcefulness of his personality as well as the consistency of his commitment to human freedom. While his struggle was for black freedom, he saw this as part of a common effort to improve society on the basis of common, universal principles of equality and individual rights.
He stuck to his principles even when it meant going against the current in the black community. In 1966 he opposed the firing without due process of a white principal in I.S. 201 in Harlem. It was this same issue of due process which led him to defend the UFT in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict of 1968. When criticized for his position by some of his long-time admirers, he responded: “I could not very well refuse to support the teachers’ right to due process and job security since it is not only a basic part of our democratic life, but is indispensable for the ability of workers to hold jobs.”
In other words, this was a right which could not be applied selectively. If it could be denied to whites, then it could also be denied to blacks. As a trade union and moral principle, it had to be applied equally and fairly to everybody, or it had not validity at all.
Randolph’s strength lay in the universality of his vision and in the moral integrity of his outlook. In terms of uplifting the economic conditions of blacks in our society and breaking the chains of segregation and poverty, his achievements are unsurpassed. But his most precious legacy to us – to all of us – is his vision of a just society, a society in which every individual’s rights are respected, regardless of his race.
He was a friend and counselor to me, as well as a teacher and a leader. The proudest moment in my life was when he nominated me to serve on the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO. For some of us, myself included, his death is a personal loss. But all of us have been affected by what he did. Our society, and the world, is a better place because of A. Philip Randolph.
- Shanker Institute Staff