…let freedom ring / A. Philip Randolph
“The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” took place on wednesday 28 August 1963. Around 250.000 people joined the march and made it one of the most memorable moments in american history. Most people remember the famous “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King, but not a lot of people know that King has not organized the march himself. Instead it was organized by Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph.
Randolph grew up in Florida in the late 19th century with his parents and his brother. Both sons were superior students and attended the Cookman Institute in East Jacksonville. Back then this was the only academic high school black people could attend.
After graduating from high school he discovered his passion for civil rights and social equality. The souls of black folk by W.E.B. Du Bois seemed to have played a pivotal role in bringing Randolph to the realisation that, of all problems the US was facing during that time, the fight for social equality is most important. 4 years after graduating from high school he moved to New York where he took social sciences courses at City College.
Between 1911 and 1917 Randolph worked a lot on various social projects like the Shakespearean Society in Harlem. It was during that time when he formed his own ideology in regards to economics and socialism. He came to realise that a collective effort is critical to bring about social and economic equality. He denied the premise that black people could only compete for low wage jobs and opened up employment office in Harlem where southern immigrants were trained and educated. He also emphasised the importance of joining trade unions.
At the end of 1916 he dropped out of college and joined the SPA, the Socialist Party of America. With the help of said party he co-founded the magazine “The Messenger” in 1917. Promoting a socialist political view “The Messenger” focussed on the following topics amongst others:
- Refusing lynching or vigilante justice
- Declining U.S. participation in World War I
- Urging African Americans to resist being drafted
- Fighting for an integrated society
- Urging black people to join radical unions
The Justice Department called it: “the most able and the most dangerous of all the Negro publications.” Unfortunately the staff of the newspaper split into different factions promoting different political views and means under which “The Messenger” greatly suffered. The final issue was printed in 1928.
From 1920 Randolph ran for political office, with no success, and started working in labor organisations. In 1925 he co-founded the “Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids” (BSCP for short) and was elected its first president. The unions motto was “Fight or Be Slaves”. The BSCP quickly gained members and was able to enlist over half of all Car Porters within the first year. Between 1925 and 1935 the union fought a long and hard fight but in the end was able to achieve substantial improvements for their workers:
- Amendments to the Railway Labor Act granting workers rights under federal law
- Employees gained $2,000,000 in pay increases
- A shorter workweek
- Overtime pay
In 1941 Randolph threatened president Roosevelt to march into Washington with approximately 50,000 black people for peaceful protest. Roosevelt proposed to issue Executive Order 8802 if the march would be canceled. The order, typically called “Fair Employment Act”, is known to be one of the early and important victories in the fight for civil rights.
In the late 1950s Randolph was able to form an important alliance with Martin Luther King Jr. Together they organised the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1958 and 1959. During that time Martin Luther King Jr. was educated by Bayard Rustin about how to organise peaceful protests in Alabama.
Randolph was finally able to fulfil a long dream of his in 1963. On wednesday 28 August 1963 an estimated 250.000 people participated in what is generally known as, “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, “The March on Washington” or the “The Great March on Washington”. Probably his largest and best known achievement, the March on Washington had a huge impact on civil rights movements and the legislative process itself. The laws passed in the aftermath of the march were a great help in bringing, and educating the following generations about equality, not only in america but also worldwide.
Randolph died in Manhattan in 1973 in his apartment after severe illness. He was unable to finish his autobiography and left behind no known relatives. He was awarded several awards during his lifetime.
His work and legacy still influence millions worldwide and Randolph’s belief in the power of peaceful direct action is exemplary until today.