Profiles in Humanism: A. Philip Randolph

In honor of Black History Month, we look back at the civil rights achievements of the 1970 Humanist of the Year, A. Philip Randolph.

Asa Philip Randolph was among the most visible and important leaders of the American labor, civil rights and humanist movements of the 20th century. A tireless advocate for the poor, disassociated and disenfranchised, Randolph exhibited the best of humanist values throughout his life.

Randolph, the son of an ordained minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was born in Crescent City, Florida on April 15, 1889.  After graduating as valedictorian of his high school in 1907, Randolph moved to New York to pursue an acting career but quickly gave up in favor of organizing labor and advocating socialist causes. He studied philosophy and economics at City College and soon began working for economic equality. He led a nationwide speaking tour opposing involvement in World War I, for which he was nearly arrested under the Espionage Act.

Randolph believed the NAACP with leaders such as W.E.B. Dubois was too slow and passive in asserting rights for America’s black community. Instead Randolph militantly believed in achieving economic equality, a goal he pursued for not just African Americans, but for all disenfranchised Americans including poor whites, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans.

During his early years in Harlem, Randolph became the founder and editor of The Messenger, later called The Black Worker, a radically progressive magazine which was called “one of the most brilliantly edited magazines in the history of American Negro journalism.”

In 1925, Randolph was asked to lead the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. For the next ten years Randolph worked to gain the Brotherhood better hours, wages and overtime pay.    In 1935, Randolph and the Brotherhood reached a collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company, a victory that Randolph called “the first victory of Negro workers.”

Randolph soon began pushing for equality in the defense industry. After threatening a march on Washington, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1941 barring discrimination in the defense industry. Though a great victory, Randolph was criticized for not achieving desegregation of the armed forces. Seven years later under President Harry Truman, Randolph pressured the President into the ordering the desegregation of the armed forces and federal service jobs.

His peaceful tactics would strongly influence the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, leading him to be called the “father of the civil rights movement.”

In 1955, Randolph became vice-president of the newly merged AFL-CIO. Randolph used his power to push for desegregation within the labor movement and wider society.

But perhaps Randolph’s greatest achievement was organizing the historic 1963 March on Washington with fellow activist Bayard Rustin. The march was perhaps the most successful in U.S. history, culminating in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech before a quarter of a million people.

For his efforts, Randolph was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and the Humanist of the Year award by the American Humanist Association in 1970.

In his later years, Randolph would found and later become president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute in 1968. The A. Philip Randolph Institute continues his struggle for a fair wage, health care, child care, education, job training and labor law reform laws.

“Freedom is never given; it is won,” said Randolph. He continued his struggle for social, political and economic justice for all Americans until his death on May 16, 1979 in New York.