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Keeping the Faith

Only when New Deal legislation outlawed company unions was the way cleared for the Brotherhood to assert itself as the true representative body of the porters. The Hundred Days of reform legislation in 1933 included the Emergency Railway Transportation Act, which forbade carriers from using company funds to maintain unions. When Pullman replaced the ERP with the Pullman Porters and Maids Protective Association in 1935, the Board of Mediation ordered an election, which the Brotherhood won 4,931 to 1,422. It was certified at last.

All along Randolph had conceived of the Brotherhood as “a spearhead for organizing other Negro workers.” He had learned at first hand the fundamental weakness of the black minority without federal or court intervention, but he also realized that the government would not act unless pressured to do so. His opponents during the next decade often were rival unions, not employers. Electric and diesel engines and automatic devices for loading coal had made the fireman’s position “clean” and therefore “a white man’s job,” but Randolph’s Provisional Committee for the Organization of Colored Firemen in 1935 sued the white union that had jurisdiction, and this led to a 1944 Supreme Court decision against “anti-Negro union deals.”

Randolph joined the AFL and never left it for the CIO, even though the policies of the CIO were closer to his fundamental beliefs, and, moreover, the AFL refused to take action against its unions that maintained racial barriers. Perhaps he feared that the Brotherhood, which represented only a fraction of black workers, would be swallowed up by the CIO’s industrial egalitarianism. Industrial unions up until that time were relatively short-lived, and Randolph continued to believe that blacks had to be a part of the AFL if they were to influence the American labor movement at all.

He believed that the black was first a worker, that social equality could only follow economic parity, a modification of the Socialist party position that the Negro question was subordinate to class. He judged that even with poor formal status in the AFL the Brotherhood would be independent of the white unions which were trying to absorb it. And when in 1935 the Brotherhood became the equal of the AFL’s 105 other member unions, Randolph was able to demand, though unsuccessfully, that those with race restrictions either eliminate such clauses or be expelled.

Unfortunately, Tearing Down the Color Bar is devoted almost entirely to union activity in the 1950s, when most of the “miles of smiles” were in the past, and many of the Brotherhood’s original members were beginning to retire. Economic history, the automobile and the airplane, had sealed the fate of passenger railway carriers. Tearing Down the Color Bar was compiled from several hundred hours of tapes that were stored in the garage of one of the Brotherhood’s longtime members, which says something about the precariousness of archival material, and how far its members had come from the days when, as Randolph said, a porter was not even considered a railroad worker, but rather a “transportation chambermaid,” and when they feared company reprisals and kept their proceedings secret.

Tearing Down the Color Bar is not, however, an oral history of the movement or a memory book like Hard Times, though Brotherhood officials in the texts gathered here frequently looked back to remind their audiences of their heroic beginnings. The book contains mostly transcriptions of speeches. The tapes from which this collection is derived may have accidentally preserved the voices of “unsung working class heroes,” as Joseph F. Wilson writes in his introduction, but their intrinsic interest is slight. They are largely appendices. One notes the range of worker concerns, from housing to foreign policy, but it is hard to imagine even Hubert Humphrey’s most dogged biographer wanting to read his banalities to the 1952 NAACP convention on the harm discrimination had done to America’s image abroad.


Paula Pfeffer’s comprehensive but poorly argued book investigates Randolph’s efforts to build a mass movement after the Brotherhood’s victory had given him the prestige of what Harold Cruse has called a “charismatic deliverer.” What one misses immediately in Pfeffer’s study is a sense of the growing national awareness of civil rights and labor questions. The poll tax, anti-lynching legislation, the cases of the Scottsboro Boys and Angelo Herndon—these causes captured the country’s attention.9 But they were often led or taken over by Communists and by the CIO’s industrial unions, which were anxious to exhibit their interracial policies to black workers who might otherwise become strikebreakers. Randolph broadened his own activities both to take advantage of the growing militancy among blacks and to keep the initiative from going to the left.10

By 1940 the Brotherhood’s influence had reached its height, and its membership had risen to around 18,000 in 117 cities. The country was coming out of the Depression, but blacks were left behind. Out of 107,000 workers in the defense industry, only 240 were black. “I think we could get 10,000 Negroes and march down Pennsylvania Avenue asking for jobs in defense plants and integration of the armed forces. It would shake up Washington,” Randolph told his closest aide, Milton Webster. He was encouraged to raise the figure to 100,000, forcing Roosevelt to issue an executive order banning discrimination in the defense industries, the forerunner of the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). “The March on Washington Committee” was controversial because Randolph excluded whites. “You take ten thousand dollars from a white man; you have his ten thousand dollars, but he’s got your movement. You take ten cents from a Negro; you’ve got his ten cents, and you also have the Negro,” he said.

But for Randolph, who had perhaps felt threatened by the success of Garvey’s defiant pageantry, separatism could only be a tactic. He turned the March on Washington Committee into a permanent national organization. Its mass rallies were, at first, well-attended and its use of dramatic, “voluntary” black-outs as protests in Harlem and Chicago’s Black Belt were popular. “As long as it remained an ad hoc organization directed at stimulating the masses and attaining a single goal,” William Harris contends, “Randolph was able to function with style and effectiveness.”11 But its success could not last because its objectives—“to advance the total economic, political, educational, and social interests of the Negro”—were far too broad, and duplicated the work of other groups, like the NAACP.

Pfeffer sees Randolph’s tactics as a foreshadowing of the Civil Rights movement, and it is true that he was exhorting blacks in 1943 to throw themselves physically against Jim Crow, to picket or sit down in segregated restaurants. But the brilliance of the nonviolent mass activity he was advocating lay in its being a large-scale application of what was already being tried elsewhere by other small groups such as CORE. He advocated a similar strategy with A. J. Muste for the League of Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation, which called on black and white youth to resist the draft. The Jim Crow army was a longstanding grievance among blacks, and Truman, who needed the black vote in the election of 1948, issued an executive order to ban discrimination within federal agencies and to desegregate the armed forces. Randolph, whose pacifism, like his black nationalism, was essentially an instrument, then disbanded the League.12

We have been hearing about blacks and civil rights for so long that we think there are more blacks in the US than there are—less than 12 percent of the population. It is easy to forget how invisible blacks once were, and how segregated. It was ignorance of black life that helped to make demonstrations that displayed blacks as a mass force of inevitability seem so impressive and extraordinary. The marches for integrated schools that Randolph staged throughout the 1950s, the Prayer Pilgrimage of 33,000 that he led to Washington in 1957—we forget how inspired he was to take the small group tactics of CORE and reimagine them on a national scale. The sight of so many blacks together was, back then, new, and the respect for the sheer number of blacks as a potential weapon thrilling.

The historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, with his protégé Bayard Rustin in charge of the complicated logistics of the events, was the culmination of a dream for Randolph, its director and “spiritual father.” But it was also the beginning of his journey toward obscurity, which, because he lived to be nearly ninety, was gradual and long. The A. Philip Randolph Institute was founded in 1964, but Randolph, “Mr. Black Labor,” was already relegated by the new generation of black activists to the status of “leader emeritus,” if he was remembered at all. The combativeness of Randolph’s youth—he once staged an angry walkout on Theodore Roosevelt—was in the late 1960s largely forgotten in the dignity of his presence. The white men whom Randolph faced across bargaining tables, Murray Kempton said, were “sometimes driven to outsized rages that anyone so polite could cling so stubbornly to what he believes.” 13 He had the opacity of the dedicated man. He was famous for his old-fashioned courtesy and exquisite correctness, even when taunted by black militants, for whom the porter was now a kind of Uncle Tom figure. Randolph, who had preached sacrifice to the porters for the sake of their children, saw the black militants as standing on the shoulders of the black radicals of his day. He told Ebony in 1969:

I can understand why they are in this mood of revolt, of resort to violence, for I was a young black militant myself…. I believed that the old political, economic, and social order had to be changed and changed immediately! Therefore I felt the force of the law and the force of public opinion. The postmaster general threw my publication out of the mails. The FBI ransacked my office—broke it up. I was probably the first Negro to go to jail for encouraging Negroes to oppose the draft and I had no peace anywhere. But as time went on, I read more of history and began to be cognizant of the fact that social change was inevitable. There is nothing that can hold it back and progress of the Negro is part of it.14

Because most of his work was devoted to organization, Randolph left no real texts, and because his speeches and his Messenger editorials, with all their repetitiousness and propaganda, were already entombed in seldom-visited basement microfilm rooms of libraries, the militants of SNCC and the nihilists of the ghetto corners in the 1960s had no idea what he stood for. Before the struggle between the black worker and the white union or employer, there had been the drama of Randolph and the black masses, the transformation in his mind from creatures of history into its makers. “We don’t impress the government until we impress the Negro himself.”

He had read Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk as a youth in Florida and a wish to become a part of the “Talented Tenth” animated his migration to New York and his early ambitions. In urging blacks into the labor and, later, civil rights movements, Randolph was not only attempting to free black hopes from the passivity of the patron-client relationship, he was also, in effect, extending the definition of the Talented Tenth. Through his articles in the Brotherhood’s mouthpiece, The Black Worker, Randolph, himself without a college education, tried to instill among the union’s members the virtues of self-help and honor, values that were identified in the 1960s as too middle-class. The integrationist goals that had made him a militant were dismissed as irrelevant or utopian.

He had been closest to black feeling and most visible as a leader in the time of black migration to the north, during the two world wars, when the new pressures of urban life accelerated black demands for desegregation and employment opportunities. By the late 1950s when the arena of confrontation shifted to the South, to bus boycotts and voter-registration drives, there were others, like King, who spoke more directly to the emotional needs of the protesters. Randolph, though a son of the black church, harbored the contempt of the unbeliever, especially after his experience with the self-interest of influential black congregations during the Brotherhood’s formative years. He used the black churches as settings and as allies because he recognized their importance to the black worker. But in the 1950s the black churches had become the custodians of the Civil Rights movement: not only King’s SCLC, but NAACP branches were often headed by ministers and filled with church people, the black church being the only institution in the South over which blacks had control.15

He was willing to publicly support the Vietnam War. Pfeffer suggests that to Randolph the army, once it had been desegregated, represented one of the few means of upward mobility for blacks, and that Randolph opposed antiwar protests because they might deflect attention from the Civil Rights movement and take away needed white allies. It must be remembered that King opposed the war at some cost to his reputation. But perhaps the conventionality of Randolph’s support for the war had more to do with his own loyalties. He had become the AFL-CIO’s only black vice-president and executive board member in 1951. His union principles were strict, and he also opposed the black and Puerto Rican advocates of community control during the bitter Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike in 1968.

Randolph lived to see the Pullman Company go out of business in 1968, and his union wither away. “I feel like an extra on the set of Green Pastures,” a former porter said at a Brotherhood anniversary celebration in the Seventies. Randolph died in 1979, honored but discarded. The percentage of blacks in unions is now higher than that of blacks in the general population: blacks now represent 14 percent of union membership but less than 12 percent of the population; teachers and hospital workers are organized, just as the porters once were; and 22.6 percent of employed blacks are union members. But most of the gains in black employment since 1970 have been in white-collar jobs, while the median income of black families in 1986 was $17,604, compared to $30,809 for white families. The discrepancy does not mean that Randolph failed, but one can’t help wondering how much less what he had worked for, and how he went about it, counts in a changed America.

Unions are not a strong component of the larger, service-driven, corporate economy, and redress, through federal intervention, is less available. Moreover, black economists like Thomas Sowell have questioned the traditional assumptions behind “statistical disparities,” much like the critics of the New Right who attack affirmative action, suggesting that the numbers, for those who still need them, don’t mean what they used to back in the days when teams headed by Randolph and Thurgood Marshall compiled reports on recruitment and promotion practices to support cases against racial bias.16 The Supreme Court, undermining the guidelines on discrimination in Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, recently ruled in Ward’s Cove v. Antonio that numerical evidence is not proof of discrimination, “no matter how stark the numerical disparity of the employer’s workforce.” Yet the extent of support in Congress for the Kennedy-Hawkins civil rights bill, intended to offset Ward’s Cove and reinforce existing civil rights legislation, suggests that the country still draws on what Randolph wished to hand down.

  1. 9

    See Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks (Oxford University Press, 1979).

  2. 10

    In 1935, during the United Front, when one third of the black population of the US was on public assistance, a group of young black intellectuals including Ralphe Bunche and Richard Wright, frustrated with bigotry in New Deal programs, persuaded Randolph to head their newly formed National Negro Congress (NNC), but the group became not much more than a Communist front, just as ten years before the American Negro Labor Congress had been, and Randolph resigned in 1940.

  3. 11

    William H. Harris, “A. Philip Randolph as a Charismatic Leader, 1925–1941,” Journal of Negro History, Vol. 64, No. 4 (Fall 1979). See also When Negroes March: The March on Washington Movement in the Organizational Politics of FEPC (Atheneum, 1969).

  4. 12

    This provoked one of the young organizers who wanted it to continue to denounce Randolph. Bayard Rustin, who later became perhaps Randolph’s closest associate, often told the story that he was so ashamed of this that he avoided Randolph for years. When they finally met again Randolph said only, “Where have you been? There’s work to do.” He never mentioned the incident.

  5. 13

    Murray Kempton, “The March on Washington,” The New Republic, September 14, 1963, and “A. Philip Randolph: ‘The Choice, Mr. President…’ ” The New Republic, July 6, 1963.

  6. 14

    Phyl Garland, “A. Philip Randolph: Labor’s Grand Old Man,” Ebony (May 1969). See also John Henrik Clarke, “A. Philip Randolph: Portrait of an Afro-American Radical,” Negro Digest (March 1967).

  7. 15

    Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (Free Press, 1984).

  8. 16

    Norman Hill, “Blacks and Unions,” and Martin Kilson, “Problems of Black Politics,” both in Dissent, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Fall 1989).

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