Reference Entry

Randolph, Asa Philip (1889 - 1979), Civil Rights Activist, Labor Organizer / Leader

William J. Cobb

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Randolph, Asa Philip (1889 - 1979), Civil Rights Activist, Labor Organizer / Leader

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labor organizer, editor, and activist, was born Asa Philip Randolph in Crescent City, Florida, to Elizabeth Robinson and James Randolph, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church preacher. In 1891 the Randolphs moved to Jacksonville, where James had been offered the pastorship of a small church. Both Asa Philip and his older brother, James Jr., were talented students who graduated from Cookman Institute (later Bethune-Cookman College), the first high school for African Americans in Florida.Randolph left Florida in 1911, moving to New York to pursue a career as an actor. Between 1912 and 1917 he attended City College, where he was first exposed to the ideas of Karl Marx and political radicalism. He joined the Socialist Party in 1916, attracted to the party's economic analysis of black exploitation in America. Randolph, along with W. E. B. Du Bois, Hubert Henry Harrison, and Chandler Owen, was one of the pioneer black members of the Socialist Party—then led by Eugene Debs. Like a number of his peers, Randolph did not subscribe to a belief in a “special” racialized oppression of blacks that existed independent of class. Rather, he argued at this point that socialism would essentially “answer” the “Negro question.” His faith in the socialist solution can be seen in the title of an essay he wrote on racial violence, “Lynching: Capitalism Its Cause; Socialism Its Cure” (Messenger, Sept. 1921).A. Philip Randolph at a meeting between civil rights leaders and Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office, Washington, D.C., 11 August 1965. (LBJ Presidential Library/Yoichi R. Okamoto, photographer.)In 1916 Randolph and Owen began working to organize the black labor force, founding the short-lived United Brotherhood of Elevator and Switchboard Operators union. Shortly thereafter, they coedited the Hotel Messenger, the journal of the Headwaiters and Sidewaiters Society. After being fired by the organization, they created the Messenger in 1917—with crucial financial support from Lucille Randolph, a beauty salon owner whom Randolph had married in 1914. The couple had no children. Lucille Randolph's success as an entrepreneur was a consistent source of stability—despite the fact that her husband's reputation as a radical scared away some of her clientele. Billing itself as “The Only Radical Negro Magazine,” the boldly iconoclastic Messenger quickly became one of the benchmark publications of the incipient New Negro movement. A single issue contained the views of Abram Harris, Kelly Miller, George Schuyler, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Countée Cullen, Emmett Jay Scott, and Charles S. Johnson.In the context of the postwar Red Scare, however, Randolph's leftist politics brought him to the attention of federal authorities determined to root out radicals, anarchists, and communists but who showed little regard for civil liberties. With the Messenger dubbed “the most dangerous of all Negro publications” by the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI), Randolph and Owen were arrested under the Espionage Act in 1918 but were eventually acquitted of all charges.When the Socialist Party split in 1919 over the issue of affiliation with the newly created socialist state in Russia, Randolph and Owen remained in the Socialist Party faction. The left wing of the party broke away, eventually coalescing into the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Randolph's ties to the Socialist Party remained firm, and he ran as the party's candidate for New York State comptroller in 1920 and as its candidate for secretary of state in 1921. Initial relations with the black CPUSA members were warm, with the Communists Lovett Fort-Whiteman and W. A. Domingo writing for the Messenger. By the late 1920s, however, Randolph had become involved in the sometime fractious politics of the black left in the New Negro era.In the early 1920s Randolph worked for the “Garvey Must Go” campaigns directed by an adhoc collection of black leaders opposed to the charismatic—and often belligerent—black nationalist Marcus Garvey. Randolph and Garvey had shared a common mentor in the socialist intellectual Hubert Harrison. Randolph claimed, in fact, to have introduced Garvey to the tradition of Harlem street-corner oratory. Randolph's opposition to Garvey appears to have been rooted in his perspective that Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association ignored the “class struggle nature of the Negro problem,” as well as in his belief that Garvey was untrustworthy.At the same time that W. A. Domingo charged that the Messenger's attacks on Marcus Garvey had metastasized into a general anti-Caribbean bias, the magazine began devoting much less attention to radical politics in general and Russia specifically. Randolph's embryonic anticommunism was partially responsible for this shift, but the Messenger had also attempted to broaden its base by appealing to more upwardly mobile black strivers.With the Messenger in editorial and financial decline, Randolph accepted a position as the head of the newly established Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and spearheaded a joint drive for recognition of the union by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Pullman Company. Randolph led the organization to affiliation with the AFL in 1928—a significant accomplishment in the face of the racial discrimination practiced by many of its sibling unions in the AFL. Randolph's decision to cancel a planned BSCP strike in 1928, however, resulted in a significant loss of confidence in the union and opened him up to criticism from the Communist Party, among others.The Communist Party–affiliated American Negro Labor Congress, created in 1925, became increasingly critical of Randolph and the BSCP by the end of the decade. At the same time, Randolph's thinking and writing took a strong and persistent anticommunist turn. In the 1930s the economic upheaval of the Great Depression and the controversial treatment of the wrongfully imprisoned Scottsboro Boys brought Communists an unprecedented degree of recognition and status within black America. The era's radicalism found expression in 1935 in the creation of the National Negro Congress (NNC)—an umbrella organization with liberal, radical, and moderate black elements. Randolph was selected as the organization's first president in 1936. Given his standing as a radical socialist, labor organizer, and civil rights advocate, Randolph was one of-the few prominent African Americans with ties to-many of the diverse constituencies that made up the NNC.Global politics shaped the organization from the outset. The NNC had been founded in the midst of the “Popular Front” era and, in many ways, had been facilitated by the shared concern of communists, liberals, socialists, and moderates about the spread of fascism across Europe and the lack of civil rights for blacks in America. However, the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 effectively ended the Popular Front, and tensions within the NNC increased. Randolph resigned in 1940, charging that Communist influence had undercut the NNC's autonomy and saying famously that “it was hard enough being black without also being red” (press release, 4 May 1940, in NAACP papers, A-444).World War II brought Randolph a new set of challenges. With America on the verge of war in 1941, he organized the March on Washington movement, an attempt to bring ten thousand African Americans to Washington to protest discrimination in defense industries. President Franklin Roosevelt, recognizing the possible impact upon morale and public relations and the significance of the black vote in the 1932 and 1936 presidential elections, issued Executive Order 8806, which forbade discrimination in defense industries and created the Fair Employment Practices Commission. In response, the proposed march was cancelled. Randolph, however, remained at the head of the organization until 1946.In 1948 Randolph, along with Bayard Rustin, with whom he would work closely in later years, organized the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience against Military Segregation. The organization's efforts led to a meeting with President Harry S. Truman in which Randolph predicted that black Americans would not fight any more wars in a Jim Crow army. As with the planned March on Washington, the 1948 efforts influenced Truman's decision to desegregate the military with Executive Order 9981.During the 1950s Randolph became more closely aligned with mainstream civil rights organizations like the NAACP—organizations that he had fiercely criticized earlier in his career. He also became more outspokenly anticommunist, traveling internationally with the Socialist Norman Thomas to point out the shortcomings of Soviet communism. He was elected to the executive council of the newly united AFL-CIO in 1955. The high-water mark of his influence, however, had passed. Randolph did not exert as much influence with the union president George Meany as he had with the AFL president William Green, whom he had known since the BSCP's affiliation in 1928. In 1959 Randolph assumed the presidency of the Negro American Labor Council (NALC). That same year, Randolph's address on the subject of racism within the AFL-CIO elicited a stern rebuke from Meany. Wedged between the radical younger members of the NALC and his contentious relationship with Meany, Randolph resigned his position in 1964.Randolph reemerged in the 1960s in connection with the modern civil rights movement; in 1962 Rustin and the seventy-two-year-old Randolph proposed a march on Washington to Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP's Roy Wilkins. Randolph was the first speaker to address the two hundred thousand marchers at the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August 1963, stating that “we are not a pressure group, an organization or a group of organizations, we are the advance guard for a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom.” The march was a decisive factor in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of-1964.Randolph presided over the creation of the A. Philip Randolph Institute in 1964 and spearheaded the organization's efforts to extend a guaranteed income to all citizens of the United States. His anticommunist views led him to support the war in Vietnam—a stance that put him at odds with his onetime ally Martin Luther King, among others. He distrusted the evolving radicalism that characterized the decade, stating that Black Power had overtones of black racism. His public support for the United Federation of Teachers in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville conflict of 1968, in which black community organizations attempted to minimize the authority of the largely white teachers' union, further alienated Randolph from the younger generation of Black Power advocates.By the time of his death in Manhattan in 1979 Randolph had become an icon in the struggle for black equality in the twentieth century. More than any other figure, A. Philip Randolph was responsible for articulating the concerns of black labor—particularly in the context of the civil rights movement. His organizing abilities and strategic acumen were key to the desegregation of defense contracting and the signal legislative achievement of the civil rights era: passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Reference Entry.  1832 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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