A. Philip Randolph was an American labor unionist, civil rights legend, and socialist politician. Randolph led a 10-year drive to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and served as the organization’s first president. Randolph arranged for Bayard Rustin to teach Martin Luther King, Jr. how to organize peaceful demonstrations for the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama. 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. A. Philip Randolph’s actions helped to inspire the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
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.”
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.