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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 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 perhaps suggesting the distance between socialists and black opinion at the time.

The Messenger at first celebrated the Bolshevik revolution, but in the early Twenties, when the US Communist party was formed, splitting the American socialist movement in two, Randolph not only remained a socialist but became strongly anti-Communist, and through the years he was suspicious of the seizures of friendliness among Communists toward black workers. Similarly, Garvey’s “Negro Zionism” was, to Randolph, a melodramatic caprice, and in 1922 The Messenger strongly supported the campaign to have Garvey deported. Both its anti-Garvey position and its anti-Communism cost The Messenger the support of progressive black intellectuals.

With the migration of blacks to the North during World War I and the shift of a vast number of blacks from a rural into an urban culture, Randolph at once recognized the need for an organization to protect the growing number of unskilled black workers, and he saw, too, the chance to make a place for himself as a black political leader. But, as Jervis Anderson points out in A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait,1 until the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph was only a failed advocate. The political and trade union organizations he helped to found had more life on paper than in the streets, because there were neither the resources nor the will among black workers to support them. In 1919, using The Messenger as its official organ, Randolph joined the National Brotherhood Workers of America, which was intended to create a “great mass movement among Negroes.” A year later they launched the Friends of Negro Freedom to protect black migrants to the city, but it ended as a forum for attacking Garvey. The pair tried to organize black laundry workers, and to establish a black branch of the Journeyman Bakers’ and Confectioners’ Union. Another umbrella group of Randolph’s devising, the United Negro Trades, intended to be the black version of the United Hebrew Trades or the Italian Chamber of Labor, came and went in 1923.

To keep the debt-ridden Messenger afloat, Randolph and Owen tried to attract a wider audience by lowering its pitch. What had begun as a “militant and revolutionary” journal of “scientific radicalism” (and sometimes captious rhetoric) became, in 1924, the “World’s Greatest Negro Monthly.” Langston Hughes called it “God Knows What.” The cultural revival of the Harlem Renaissance was taking the place of radical politics as a subject, and The Messenger‘s day was passing. Its circulation had reached a peak of 26,000 in the Red Summer of 1919, but fell to 5,000 by November and declined steadily afterward.2 In 1925 Owen moved to Chicago, and Randolph left the Socialist party, his wish to organize black workers now expressed mostly in soap-box oratory, like that of the dreamers on the “bug house” corner in Invisible Man:

Who would depend upon the American sense of justice to abolish lynchings, riots, disfranchisement and jim-crow car, when this alleged sense of justice has condoned, sanctioned and connived at these outrages for almost half a century? This is the policy of the Old Crow Negro, and it has failed, failed miserably, to save the life and property of Negroes in America.

But once the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters found him Randolph never betrayed any fear that the candle in the dark place would go out. Though he replaced the zeal of the black church with that of labor solidarity, he kept something of the black back-country preacher’s Old Testament fortitude and single-minded faith. This serenity enabled him to see the porters’ union through what he called, in the language of the meeting hall, “the bloody seas” of trial and disappointment, some of it the result of his own tactical miscalculations and inexperience. As he grew up, so to speak, with the Brotherhood, Randolph refined his style, and discovered a gift for public relations, for negotiations. His incorruptibility and his oratorical poise kept the admiration of the porters, even when they lost hope that a black union could ever force a corporation like the Pullman Company to its knees.


Lincoln’s funeral saved the Pullman sleeping car. George Pullman’s “Pioneer” was considered a folly until it bore the president’s body in state to Springfield, Illinois. Pullman hired only blacks as porters from the very beginning. Blacks were cheap labor and their presence, their social distance, became essential to the Pullman car’s atmosphere of luxury and discretion. Passengers addressed every porter as “George,” a generic designation, Murray Kempton said, from a world which was always mixing up one porter with another because the porter was “a piece of furniture set out for the convenience of persons who saw no need to be connoisseurs of this sort of furniture.”3 Though O’Neill’s Brutus Jones spent ten years as a stower of baggage, learning from “de white quality talk” that “for de big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor,” the Pullman porter was fixed in the white mind and afterward in American films as a self-effacing minstrel with impeccable manners, antebellum solicitude, and worldly-wise humor.

By World War I the Pullman Company was the largest private employer of blacks in the United States. Most of its 12,000 porters had been brought north from the South, where a tradition of quiet service was thought to be ingrained.

The black professional class looked down on porters, but their romantic image among other blacks depended in part on the notion that they were men who worked below their education—as they often did. The body of a porter who died in a train wreck in 1923 was identified by his Phi Beta Kappa key from Dartmouth. The “colleged” porter appears in works of fiction by black writers, like J. A. Rogers’s From Superman to Man (1917), in which travelers engage “George” in late-night, cross-continental debates about the race theories of Finot. Strivers, men like Benjamin E. Mays, later president of Morehouse College, worked as porters during the summer months of their youth. (Mays was the only one fired among a group that sent a letter to management to object to porters being held on call without pay, and he was also the only one with a college degree.)

That porters were workers at the mercy of company practices was obscured by the picture presented of them as privileged, contented, a picture to which a large number of porters themselves acquiesced. Among blacks the Pullman porter was someone who had a steady job that took him to exotic places—Kansas City, Oakland—and he was thought to rub elbows with the rich and famous whom he served. “The porter had all of the familiar middle-class prejudices of the white-collar worker and upper servant,” Sterling D. Spero and Abram L. Harris noted in their landmark study, The Black Worker (1930).4 To have bankers ride in his car, though they tipped badly, made the porter feel like a captain of industry: “Even a vicarious captain of industry is rather poor trade-union material.”

Not only did Randolph have to contend with the paternalistic hold of the company, its propaganda as the benevolent employer of freedmen, its association with the name of Lincoln—Robert Todd Lincoln had been a member of the board—he also had to face a deep skepticism and long-nourished resentment among blacks toward organized labor. Moreover, the historical experience of blacks with unionism was mostly one of exclusion.5 The Knights of Labor, committed to social equality as well as fearful of black strikebreakers, had sought to enlist blacks as early as 1869, but the craft unions of skilled workers that dominated the American Federation of Labor after it was founded in 1881 refused to admit blacks. Samuel Gompers maintained from the AFL’s beginning that white southern workers simply would not tolerate them. The AFL’s position may also have reflected to some degree a general antipathy to unskilled industrial workers. The question was whether blacks should ignore the AFL and join the IWW, or try to form a separate black union movement, and during World War I some nineteen small, independent, but short-lived black unions were formed. Booker T. Washington’s concept of self-sufficiency belonged to an era before industrialization, but the Tuskegee philosophy of hard work and accumulating capital continued to influence black economic thinking.

  1. 1

    Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973; University of California Press, 1986.

  2. 2

    See Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., No Crystal Stair: Black Life and The Messenger, 1917-1928 (Greenwood Press, 1976); Francis Broderick and August Meier, eds., Negro Protest Thought in the Twentieth Century (Bobbs Merrill, 1965).

  3. 3

    Murray Kempton, Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (Simon and Schuster, 1955).

  4. 4

    The Black Worker: The Negro and the Labor Movement (Columbia University Press; reprinted by Atheneum, 1968).

  5. 5

    See Herbert R. Northrup, Organized Labor and the Negro (Harper Brothers, 1944); Ray Marshall, The Negro and Organized Labor (Wiley, 1965); Milton Cantor, ed., Black Labor in America (Negro Universities Press, 1969); and John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Eliott Rudwick, eds., Black Workers and Organized Labor (Wadsworth, 1971).

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