Asa Philip Randolph (April 15, 1889 – May 16, 1979); Born in Crescent City, Florida, became a formidable force in the American Labor Movement. Randolph tried to unionize black shipyard workers and elevator operators.
Randolph was one of the most respected leaders of the American Civil Rights movement in the twentieth century. Randolph was a labor activist; editor of the political journal the Messenger, organizer of the 1941 March on Washington which resulted in the establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), and architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Randolph was the son of Rev. James William Randolph, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Elizabeth Robinson Randolph, a seamstress. The family moved to Jacksonville two years after his birth. In 1907, Randolph graduated as the valedictorian of Cookman Institute in East Jacksonville, Florida, and worked a series of menial jobs while pursuing a career as an actor. He moved to New York in 1911, and after reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk decided to devote his life to fighting for African American equality. In 1914, Randolph married Lucille E. Green, a Howard graduate and entrepreneur whose economic support allowed Randolph to pursue Civil Rights full-time. The couple did not have any children.
While taking classes at the City College of New York and New York University, Randolph met the black socialist Chandler Owen, who shared his commitment to progressive politics and black equality. By 1917, the two founded the socialist magazine the Messenger. Although the Messenger was not financially successful, its editorials against lynching and segregation, its opposition to African American participation in World War I, and its advocacy of radical unionism were widely influential in black communities. At the same time Randolph began his career as a labor organizer working to create a union for elevator operators in New York.
As WWII loomed, Randolph’s concerns shifted to segregation in the military and the exclusion of black workers from defense industries and war production employment. After the collective lobbying efforts of Randolph, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League failed to sway FDR to end segregation in the military and defense industries, Randolph initiated the March on Washington Movement. Arguing that, “There must be no dual standards of justice, no dual rights, privileges, duties or responsibilities of citizenship. No dual forms of freedom,” he called for thousands of blacks to assemble at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on July 1, 1941 to demand FDR take action. When Randolph refused to call off the march, FDR issued Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in defense industries and created the FEPC for the duration of World War II. By 1943 labor shortages and the FEPC led to a dramatic increase in African American employment. This newfound access to defense industry employment in turn facilitated the mass migration of more than 5.5 million African Americans to defense centers located in Northern and Western cities.
Randolph continued to campaign for the desegregation of the U.S. military. In 1946, he created the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service, later called the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience. In response to increasing black political power and protest, President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military with Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948. In 1950, Randolph co-founded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to coordinate the legislative activities of a number of organizations working against racial discrimination.
While Randolph’s Civil Rights contributions have been substantial, he is perhaps best known, along with Bayard Rustin, as the architect of the 1963 March on Washington. This march offered Martin Luther King, Jr. the forum for his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and is credited with creating the momentum that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Randolph continued to advocate political and economic equality throughout his life, founding the Negro American Labor Council, serving on the AFL-CIO Executive Council and establishing the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a jobs training center. A. Philip Randolph died in New York City on May 16, 1979 at the age of 90.