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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

1.

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.

2.

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.

White unionists seldom acknowledged that their opposition put blacks in the position of having to work as scabs. “It is idle and vain to hope or expect Negro workers, out of work and who receive less wages when at work than white workers, to refuse to scab upon white workers when an opportunity presents itself,” Randolph said. White scabs were not unknown, but the visibility of blacks made them easy targets. When white workers rioted in East St. Louis in 1917, fifty-nine blacks there were killed, and thousands were driven out of town. After this Du Bois lamented that it was impossible for a black to become anything from a boiler maker to a stone cutter “without encountering the open determination and unscrupulous opposition of the whole united labor movement of America.”

Incidents of this kind confirmed the feeling among blacks that if white unions didn’t want them then they didn’t need white unions. But Randolph saw that competition among “white and black dogs” for bones was causing them to lose sight of their common interests. He believed, with Debs, that the success of a workers’ movement depended on its maintaining the broadest possible appeal. Radical unions like the IWW called for unity among white and black workers, but most blacks were reluctant to be identified with what was considered the IWW’s anti-Americanism. Kelly Miller, dean of Howard University, was urging blacks in 1925 to “line up with the best element of American citizenship.” The Negro, he argued, “helpless as a leaf in the wind,” needed protection more than he did union alliances. “Prudence compels him to seek shelter from those who have rather than from those who have not.”

The blacks who worked for the railroads were isolated in a highly organized industry.6 The constitutions of the major railroad unions of locomotive engineers, conductors, firemen, and trainmen barred blacks from membership. These brotherhoods held aloof even from the AFL. They functioned as fraternal organizations and admitting black railway men would have meant accepting them as social equals. They controlled apprenticeships and thus denied blacks entrance to occupations. At most blacks were given segregated unions under the supervision of white locals, which meant that they had no job protection.

There had been talk among porters about the need to organize as early as 1909. At around that time two black unions, one for dining-car employees and the other for the rest of blacks on the railroads refused membership in white unions, were formed to improve the conditions of black railroad employees, but they were unable to accomplish much beyond token wage increases. In 1920 the porters attempted to form a bargaining organization but Pullman formed its own union, the Employee Representation Plan, or ERP. Four years later, in 1924, a group of porters attempted to press for higher wages. Pullman agreed to negotiate only through its ERP to prove that outside unions were unnecessary.

In early 1925 Randolph was addressing a street crowd in Harlem when a group of porters, who were later to become his right-hand men, passed by and were stirred by his presence. They decided at once that he was the man they needed. In addition to already having a reputation as a leader, he did not work for Pullman and was therefore not vulnerable to company reprisals. They asked him to speak before the Porters Athletic Association, and Randolph used the occasion to attack the porters’ participation in the ERP, insisting that they needed a union free of company control.

The very isolation of the porter, as Spero and Harris saw in 1930, would be among the union’s greatest strengths. The nature of the job made the porter accessible to Randolph’s organizers without their having to contest company turf. The porters were scattered throughout the country, sleeping in dormitories in black communities; their segregated life protected the union’s channels of communication. Union literature was easy to distribute by the expedient of throwing it from the trains. “His home is everywhere,” Randolph said of the porter. The Pullman Company, with a few exceptions, controlled the sleeping car and parlor service of the entire continent, which meant that the porters were a homogeneous group working for “a single employer with a single labor policy,” and therefore sharing the same grievances from city to city.

In 1925, the year the Brotherhood was founded, few blacks were hired for Pullman’s manufacturing or repair shops, and blacks were expressly excluded from service as conductors. The company refused to pay porters conductors’ wages when they were “in charge” of a car and did conductors’ work. What positions porters could aspire to within the company had to do with custodial duties, like that of storekeeper of linen supplies. A porter in 1925 earned $67.00 a month, $94.50 a month after fifteen years of service; the base pay was $810 a year and the yearly average in tips amounted to $600—a year before the Labor Bureau, Inc., of New York estimated that an average family needed an annual income of $2,088.

The Pullman Company also expected porters to buy their own uniforms during their first ten years of service and to bear the cost of maintaining themselves while away from home. Living and occupational expenses, including the cost of shoe polish for clients, amounted to $33, almost half the monthly wage. “Pillow punchers” worked much longer hours than other railroad workers. Instead of the standard 240 hours per month, Pullman porters were paid on the basis of 11,000 miles per month, or 400 hours, which did not include the time porters were required to prepare cars or to clean them up for storage after a run. “You had to touch up the men’s room, the ladies’ room, the vestibule,” a porter remembered in Studs Terkel’s Hard Times. “You carried a mop and a broom and the Company said: Just bring me the handle back.” Porters were also unable to rest under the “doubling out” system, which meant that they got off one train as soon as it stopped at the station and left on another. There was no overtime or compensation for delayed arrivals.

In the long, bitter, and complicated fight to persuade the porters and the general public of the importance of a black union, and to maintain legal pressure against Pullman and the ERP, Randolph’s primary concern was to preserve the Brotherhood. At the beginning he sometimes waived dues to attract new members, which made the Brotherhood dependent on white liberal philanthropy. Often because he put recognition of the union before pay increases he was criticized by sectors of the black community that did not share his belief in trade unionism. Besides, the war of briefs between the Brotherhood and Pullman struck at the porters’ earning capacity, and the years of litigation frustrated many members who wanted to confront Pullman directly. “We thought Randolph was crazy,” Noble Sissle said. Randolph was also accused of being a tool of the Communists and even of being used by Pullman to get porters out on strike so that the company could replace them with whites. To counter the formidable opposition, which included the “big Negroes” of the black church, black fraternal organizations, and the black press, Randolph revived The Messenger as The Black Worker, and, as William H. Harris relates in Keeping the Faith, hardly any other issue was more fiercely debated in the black press in the 1920s and 1930s than that of the Brotherhood.7

In 1925, the union had 1,904 members, but Pullman refused not only to recognize it, but even to mention the Brotherhood by name in any of its communications with government agencies. Meanwhile, Pullman’s intimidation of the porters continued: anyone suspected of helping the union was fired; Filipinos were placed in the club cars to remind blacks that they were expendable; prominent black politicians were hired to spread good words about the company; and there were many instances of physical assault on organizers. While the board of mediation established by the Railway Labor Act of 1926 had ruled that the Brotherhood represented the porters, and “requested” that Pullman submit to arbitration, it had no power to compel Pullman to do so.

Pullman made a few concessions at a wage conference in 1926, and even announced that individual porters’ names would be displayed to end the practice of addressing them as “George.” But Randolph was appealing to a sense of self within the porter that no company union ever could. The porters, he said, worked under conditions psychologically unchanged since 1867, a time when blacks hired by Pullman were “easily induced to accept any wage system” because they were not only incapable of thinking in terms of collective bargaining, but were uncertain even of emancipation. The Brotherhood’s triumph, as much as the contracts it eventually negotiated, was its symbolic value, that it existed. It was a campaign for the rights of blacks as integrated citizens, yet because it was a black organization it also encouraged racial identity.

By 1927 the Brotherhood claimed 5,700 members, almost half of all porters. Randolph, believing he had to do something more challenging than “letter-writing and speech-making,” announced a strike vote in March 1928 in the hope that Coolidge would intervene in the Brotherhood’s dispute with Pullman. But when the mediation board ruled that no emergency existed, on the advice of William Green of the AFL the strike was called off. Luckily Randolph had a talent for displaying defeats as moral victories: “That a large mass of Negroes, submarginal workers, conditioned as inferiors, threatened to project a strike on a national scale under Negro leadership,” the first such threat in US history, helped to create dramatic changes in the public consciousness of the black worker from servant to wage earner.8

The Brotherhood began to be perceived as “the guardian of black labor.” Not a mass movement, it nevertheless began to enjoy mass sympathy as a tiny group that was valiantly standing up to a powerful white corporation. It became news that the Brotherhood joined with the AFL and the NAACP to help defeat the appointment of John Parker to the Supreme Court in 1930, and when in the same year a porter was found hanged near the railroad tracks of Locust Grove, Georgia, the Brotherhood kept the unsolved crime in front of the public.

By 1932 the federal courts upheld the union’s right to sue on behalf of porters, and restrained Pullman from harassment. But the Depression meant fewer travelers, fewer jobs, and lower tips. Pullman unilaterally cut porters’ wages in 1932: “Here was the Brotherhood’s Valley Forge.” Confidence in the union virtually disappeared, the Brotherhood’s membership fell to 658 in 1933, The Black Worker closed down, and Randolph was evicted from his New York headquarters. Often, during the early years of the Depression, the Brotherhood seemed to exist mostly in Randolph’s imagination.

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.

3.

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. 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).

  6. 6

    See Howard W. Risher, Jr., The Negro and the Railroad Industry (Wharton School and University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971).

  7. 7

    Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925–1937 (University of Illinois Press, 1977).

  8. 8

    See Brailsford Brazeal, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (Harper Brothers, 1946).

  9. 9

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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).

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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).

  15. 15

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

  16. 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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