Keeping the Faith

A. Philip Randolph: Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement

by Paula F. Pfeffer
Louisiana State University Press, 336 pp., $22.95
A. Philip Randolph
A. Philip Randolph; drawing by David Levine


A. Philip Randolph took over the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925 and made it into an organization of historical importance far beyond its numbers. Randolph turned a labor union into a freedom movement, and during its twelve-year battle with the Pullman Company to become the first black union recognized by a major US corporation, he helped to transform attitudes among blacks toward unions, toward themselves as workers, and to end organized labor’s antagonism toward black workers. If Du Bois was the heir of the abolitionists, then Randolph was the successor of the Reconstruction radicals: he was almost alone among black leaders of his time in thinking of the racial struggle as based on the economic needs of blacks. He chose not to identify with the middle-class cultural aspirations of the New Negro, but he also offered blacks more than the ephemeral comforts of Marcus Garvey, whose glorification of separatism he actively opposed. Randolph’s mission was “to bring the gospel of unionism into the colored world.”

Race pride, socialist ideals, and a sincerity as exalted as that of Carlyle’s visionaries coalesced in Asa Philip Randolph. He was born in Florida in 1889 and grew up in Jacksonville, where his father was a tailor and an itinerant African Methodist Episcopal minister. The Randolph household was similar to the one Paul Robeson grew up in: religious, bookish, disciplined, poor. Randolph’s father, a self-taught man, could not afford to send his two sons to college, and Randolph worked around Jacksonville until he left in 1911 to try to make an acting career in New York. There he moved from job to casual job; attended evening classes at City College; read Marx “as children read Alice in Wonderland,” so he said; and took part in debates at the Rand School, where he heard the call of Hubert Harrison, the leading black socialist of the day, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and, especially, Eugene Debs. He married in 1914 Lucille Green, a widow five years his senior who was to be his primary means of support in the decades to come, and thus freed him for the activist’s life.

Randolph also met in 1914 an unlikely collaborator, Chandler Owen, a graduate student known uptown for his cynicism, who nevertheless shared Randolph’s political interests. The pair joined the Socialist party in 1916 and founded in Harlem in 1917 a radical journal, The Messenger, which at once took a militantly antiwar position, and boldly attacked the “cheap peanut politics” of conservative black leaders. Allying itself for a time with the Wobblies, it demanded for the black worker “the full product of his toil,” and exhorted blacks to arm themselves in self-defense against white mob violence. Largely because of his antiwar speeches and editorials in The Messenger the US attorney general called Randolph “the most dangerous Negro in America.” Harlem called the pair Lenin and Trotsky, the irony…

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