Key Figures behind the March
Randolph, the Consensus-Builder
by Charles Euchner
A. Philip Randolph
Life: 1889 –1979
Born: Crescent City, FL
Work: Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, President
Role in March: Architect
The only person allowed a good night's sleep on the eve of the March on Washington was Asa Philip Randolph.
Randolph stood above all the factions and feuds of the movement. An unapologetic Socialist, he still escaped attacks from mainstream politicians. Randolph's courtly ways, and his complete faith in friends and colleagues, set him apart.
From a young age, Randolph looked and sounded like a distinguished man. Tall and bronze-skinned, he was balding and graying, with just a small tuft of hair on his forehead, by his 30s. He wore the finest clothing he could buy—dark three-piece suits, usually wool, with dark homburg hats. His baritone spilled out in resonant British trills, which he had cultivated as a performer.
But Randolph's statesmanlike aura went beyond looks and sounds. To Randolph, anyone in the loose coalition of labor and civil rights activists—with one exception, the Communists—was basically good. Even in the midst of disagreements, Randolph remained serene. As a young man, Bayard Rustin joined the youth arm of the Communist Party for three years. Randolph told him he was making a mistake, that the Communists did not really care about blacks but wanted to exploit civil rights for their own purposes. When Rustin left the Communists, Randolph embraced him. Later, Rustin attacked Randolph for canceling protests in 1948, and the two did not speak for three years. But when Rustin approached him again, Randolph said, "Bayard, where have you been? I haven't seen you around lately."
Randolph did not hold grudges. He cared about alliances and action.
Randolph learned about race when he was 9, growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. A gang of white hoodlums threatened to kidnap and lynch a black man in jail, and his father, the Reverend James Randolph, joined a black posse to surround the jail and fend off the mob. His mother sat by the window all night with a shotgun on her lap, prepared to use any means necessary to protect her home and children. That night, no lynching took place. But even though he was painfully conscious of race, Rev. Randolph did not see blackness as either superior or inferior. God and Christ, he told his son, have no color.
At the age of 21, Phil Randolph moved to New York City, where he found a calling onstage. He won starring roles in Othello, Hamlet, and The Merchant of Venice. Acting taught Randolph how to attract and hold the attention of a crowd. Randolph adopted his powerful voice in those roles, but left the theater when his father objected. He turned to politics, developing his own stump speeches about labor, race, Communism, war—every topic in the news those days. He became a soapbox newsreel.
Randolph gained a larger following as the founding editor of the Messenger, a journal of news and commentary on race, labor affairs, and politics. It was the only independent publication for blacks and rivaled the Crisis, the publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Randolph's early efforts to organize—first waiters on a steamship, then porters at an electric utility—failed miserably. Then, for 12 years, starting in 1925, Randolph battled the Pullman Company for the right to organize its workers. At the time, Pullman employed more blacks than any other company. When Randolph started his drive, porters made $67.50 for 300 or 400 hours of work a month, with no paid vacation or benefits. Porters also had to pay for their own uniforms and got wages deducted when anything was stolen on their watch.
The Pullman Company responded with righteous anger. One Pullman executive called Randolph a "wild-eyed uppity Negro hustler who never made up a Pullman berth in his life." Over the years, Pullman fired 800 porters in retaliation for working with Randolph. The company also started its own company union. Pullman goons beat organizers, mob-style, and threatened worse if they didn't stop organizing. When intimidation failed, the Pullman Company attempted to bribe Randolph, sending him a blank check in return for halting his organizing drives. Randolph made a photostat and sent the check back.
The union finally won recognition in 1937. Within years, wages more than doubled and working conditions improved. Porters finally won pay for their five hours of work preparing berths for customers, which previously came before they punched in. Randolph was the greatest star in black America—called "St. Philip of the Pullman Porters" and the "Black Messiah."
With the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters firmly established, Randolph decided to hold a massive march on Washington in 1941.
Randolph envisioned a column of 10,000 black men—or more, as many as 100,000—marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, carrying banners ("WINNING THE WAR FOR THE NEGRO IS WINNING THE WAR FOR DEMOCRACY"), shouting slogans ("We die for our country! Let us work in our country!"), and singing labor songs ("Which Side Are You On?"). President Franklin D. Roosevelt would look through the White House windows to see the greatest gathering of blacks ever—all protesting his administration. Plans called for long lines of marchers walking to the muffled drums of a funeral procession.
Washington had been the scene of four other marches, but blacks had never massed together for a major protest. Before Randolph, the civil rights movement remained torn between Booker T. Washington's conservative approach (creating a vibrant culture of education, business, and faith while accepting white dominance) and W. E. B. Du Bois's "talented tenth" (forging a black leadership class from the best and brightest of all blacks). Randolph believed in the power of the masses, which included not only educated and professional people but also factory workers, longshoremen, sharecroppers, porters, and the unemployed.
"Nobody expects 10,000 Negroes to get together and march anywhere for anything at any time," Randolph said. "In common parlance, they are supposed to be just scared and unorganizable. Is this true? I contend it is not."
To claim the citizenship that was their birthright, Randolph understood, blacks needed to get in the streets. To be free, Randolph said, blacks must overcome "the slave psychology and inferiority complex in Negroes which comes and is nourished with Negroes relying on white people for direction and support."
Randolph believed—more than anyone else in civil rights or labor—that a mass demonstration would change the psychology of both blacks and whites. Blacks would gain pride, a sense of brotherhood that comes from marching with countless others. Whites—and the political system they controlled—would feel apprehensive about disorder and bad public relations. Some might even be impressed enough to support civil rights.
A march down Pennsylvania Avenue would be Roosevelt's greatest humiliation as president—greater, even, than the Supreme Court's rejection of a dozen New Deal programs and Congress's rejection of his bid to pack the Supreme Court. This humiliation would be global. These black marchers would not just battle Roosevelt's administration; they would embarrass America before the whole world.
To organize marchers, Randolph deployed his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Local union leaders and porters spread the word as railroad cars clacked from place to place. In the weeks before the march was to take place, Rustin hitchhiked up and down the East Coast to rally union locals, churches, and universities to march.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt implored Randolph to call off the demonstration. A wartime march would be too disruptive. What signal would 100,000 angry Negroes send to the world when the United States was fighting abroad for democracy?
Roosevelt called Randolph and his supporters, like the NAACP's Walter White, to the White House.
"What do you want me to do?" the president asked. "Mr. President," Randolph said, "we want you to do something that will enable Negro workers to get work in these plants."
"Why, I surely want them to work, too," Roosevelt said. "I'll call up the heads of the various defense plants and have them see to it that Negroes are given the same opportunity to work in defense plants as any other citizen in the country."
"We want you to do more than that. We want something concrete, something tangible, definite, positive, and affirmative."
"What do you mean?" Roosevelt asked.
"Mr. President, we want you to issue an executive order making it mandatory that Negroes be permitted to work in these plants."
The president wondered aloud whether Randolph could get 100,000 Negroes to march on Washington. Walter White said he could. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, called to the White House to help the president confront Randolph, told Roosevelt to find a solution that would satisfy the organizer.
So on June 25, 1941, just days before the planned march on Washington, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, formally mandating equal opportunity in defense industries. And Randolph called off the march.
Randolph made a habit of planning and canceling marches—four in the 1940s—and his supporters attacked him for losing nerve. But to Randolph, the primary purpose of any political action was to achieve specific goals. To march after achieving those goals would risk his credibility in future bargaining. So the larger goal of demonstrations—changing the psychology of blacks and of the nation as a whole—had to wait for another day. By 1963, the civil rights movement convulsed the country. Never before had so many people taken to the streets or gotten arrested for any cause.
Now Randolph was ready for one last hurrah.
Charles Euchner is the author or editor of a dozen books and is the creator and principal of the Writing Code™, a writing program. Now a case writer at the Yale School of Management, he has taught writing at Yale University and was the founding executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University. This profile and the others of Rustin and Reuther are excerpted from Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington , by Charles Euchner. Copyright © 2010 by Charles Euchner. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.
Reprinted from American Educator, Fall 2013