Asa Philip Randolph (aka A. Philip Randolph)
April 15, 1889 – May 16, 1979
Notable: Activist & Labor Organizer
Asa Philip Randolph was born in Crescent City, Florida the second son of Elizabeth Robinson Randolph and Rev. James William Randolph. Randolph’s mother was a seamstress while his father was a tailor and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church minister. When Randolph was around two years old, his family relocated to Jacksonville’s Black community where he spent the rest of his childhood.
His parents were firm believers in Black people’s right to equality and the right of people as a whole to be treated fairly and humanely. Growing up, Randolph saw his parents become personally involved in defending the rights of Black people. On at least one occasion, his parents armed themselves as his father went out to help prevent a lynching and his mother remained home to protect their house.
In addition to a penchant for becoming involved with social justice issues, Randolph’s parents also passed down an appreciation for education. He performed well in school and attended the Cookman Institute which was notable at the time of its founding and many years later for being Florida’s only school that provided higher educations for Black students. While at Cookman, Randolph stood out academically, athletically, and creatively as a star in the school’s choir, baseball team, and drama performances which resulted in him graduating in 1907 as valedictorian.
After graduating, Randolph spent four years working various jobs to support himself while he focused on his acting and singing. In 1911, he joined the early Great Migration and settled in Harlem with hopes of becoming an actor. Yet, he eventually set aside his acting dreams in part due to his parent’s disapproval but also as a result of being inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk he joined the fight for social equality.
Within a year of arriving in New York City, Randolph was balancing working day jobs with studying literature and sociology at City College at night. Joining forces with Chandler Owen, a Columbia University student who shared some of his views, he established the Brotherhood of Labor, an employment agency used to organize Black workers.
At the urging of the president of the Headwaiters and Sidewaiters Society of Greater New York, the pair began editing Hotel Messenger, the organization’s monthly magazine but simplified the title to Messenger. The magazine featured articles that equally criticized the ideologies of Black leaders from different factions just as readily as White politicians.
Unlike some other activists of the time, Randolph believed that working class rather than middle class Black people would be the driving force for progress. Randolph and Owen promoted their socialist and anti-war views which unsurprisingly brought them unwanted attention from the U.S. Department of Justice. Despite being investigated, they narrowly escaped arrest as a result of maintaining their distance from communists.
During World War I, Randolph and Owen pushed for Black soldiers and civilians to be hired for more positions and to receive higher wages within the armed forces. They also attempted to organize Black shipyard workers and elevator operators. Randolph’s track record as a labor organizer led to him being tapped to lead the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in 1925.
In keeping with the time, some unions such as branches of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) did not accept Black people as members. The Pullman Company primarily employed Black men as porters for their sleeping cars and was the largest overall employer of Black people. For a decade, Randolph worked to organize the porters and have the BSCP be recognized as their official collective bargaining agent. By not being an employee of the Pullman Company, Randolph was able to operate as spokesperson and union leader for the porters without fear of reprisal.
The BSCP finally reached an agreement with the railroads in 1937 and gained admittance to the AFL. But the win was a Sisyphean task as the AFL’s internal discriminatory practices continued. In protest, the BSCP left the AFL and joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Randolph’s role as leader of the BSCP brought national attention and elevated him to the position of being the most prominent and powerful Black union organizer in America. In the years leading up to World War II, Randolph used his notoriety to once again call upon the federal government to require equal employment and fair pay for Black workers in the defense industry.
By 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had refused to take action and in response, Randolph issued a call for a march on Washington, D.C. As tens of thousands of people prepared to descend on the nation’s capital the pressure forced Roosevelt’s hand. This resulted in Roosevelt signing Executive Order 8802 which made race-based employment discrimination at the government’s defense organizations illegal. Randolph threatened another march in 1948 which led to President Harry S. Truman outlawing racial segregation in the military with the passage of Executive Order 9981.
Another major win for Randolph was his selection to serve as a vice president of the AFL-CIO after the AFL and CIO merged. Yet, racism within the ranks of the AFL-CIO continued and led to more criticisms from Randolph. In 1959, he created another Black-focused labor union, the Negro American Labor Council. As the Civil Rights Movement began to gather steam, Randolph put his skills as an organizer to work.
The late 1950s would see Randolph organize general marches and youth marches to protest the continued segregation of schools despite it having been ruled unconstitutional. During this time he collaborated with up-and-coming organizers such as Bayard Rustin. The organizing strategies that had been executed along with the seeds planted by the threats of a march on Washington paved the way for 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Unfortunately, Randolph’s wife of almost 50 years died shortly before the March. Yet, he continued with his work as an organizer and founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute to study poverty and train leaders. As his health began to decline, Randolph retired from public life and resigned from the BSCP after serving for 40 years. Asa Philip Randolph died at the age of 90 in bed at home in New York City and his ashes were interred at the Randolph Institute.
- “A. Philip Randolph.” n.d. AFL-CIO. Accessed August 29, 2021. https://aflcio.org/about/history/labor-history-people/asa-philip-randolph.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “A. Philip Randolph.” The Biography.com Website. A&E Networks Television. March 31, 2021. https://www.biography.com/activist/a-philip-randolph.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ed. 2021. “A. Philip Randolph.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. May 12, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/A-Philip-Randolph.
- History.com Editors, ed. 2018. “A. Philip Randolph.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. August 21, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/a-philip-randolph.
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