Historical Spotlight: Asa Philip Randolph
By Jonathan Philipp, Research and Policy Assistant, NTJN
In honor of Black History Month, the National Transitional Jobs Network is presenting a blog series around the past, present, and future of employment for black males. The first blog post of the series focused on KISRA, a member of the B.MORE Initiative‘s Community of Practice. This blog is a historical spotlight on Asa Philip Randolph, a Civil Rights advocate and pioneer within the labor movement. Read on to learn about how Randolph changed the black labor movement.
Born on April 15, 1889, to Rev. James William Randolph, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Elizabeth Robinson Randolph, a seamstress, Asa Philip Randolph became one of the most influential leaders of the American Civil Rights movement. At the age of two his family moved to Jacksonville, Florida. He graduated as valedictorian of Cookman Institute and tried to pursue a career in acting. His career path changed after reading W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, which influenced him to dedicate his life to fighting for African American equality.
In 1912, along with Chandler Owen, Randolph created an employment agency for black men. Randolph and Owen created the Messenger, after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. This magazine presented articles against lynching and segregation practices. While the magazine did not turn out to be financially sustainable, it was a starting point for Randolph’s career as a labor organizer. In 1925, Randolph helped form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union for black workers at the Pullman Company. This union became the first African American organized union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major United States corporation. It took 12 years for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to get the Pullman Company to sign the contract, but without Randolph’s hard work this would not have been possible.
In 1936, Randolph became president of a new organization, the National Negro Congress (NNC), whose goal was to fight for African Americans’ rights through trade unions. He quit his position at the NNC due to their strong communist beliefs. Randolph then began working with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and was appointed vice president of their Executive Council in 1955. In 1959, Randolph formed the Negro American Labor Council, which helped fight discrimination within the AFL-CIO and worked towards the goal of all African Americans working together for common purposes.
Randolph is credited with convincing President Harry Truman to sign an order commanding an end to discrimination in the armed forces and federal civil jobs. But what is often viewed as Randolph’s greatest achievement was the March on Washington, which brought over 250,000 people to D.C. to march under the slogan “Jobs and Freedom.” Randolph, along with Bayard Rustin, planned this famous march after canceling several of their previous planned marches. Randolph and his fellow civil rights leaders eventually saw the success of their hard work with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Asa Philip Randolph helped spur changes to labor laws and practices for African Americans that were often viewed as impossible, but with his and other activists’ hard work they were able to bring about change. Today, however, we know that more must be done to bring about equality and economic security in the workforce, especially for low-income black men and other individuals with barriers to employment. As outlined in an earlier blog from the NTJN, Fulfilling the Dream: Advancing Employment and Economic Opportunity for Low-Income Black Men, here are three ways to take action that will help further Randolph’s goal of equal access to “Jobs and Freedom” in America:
1) Support Pathways Back to Work: The Pathways Back to Work Act is aimed at providing subsidized employment and Transitional Jobs for youth, the long-term unemployed, and low-income Americans, along with job training to get unemployed Americans back to work, strengthen communities, and benefit employers.
2) Integrate Employment and Fatherhood Programming: Combining employment programming with fatherhood programming can increase participants’ earnings, increase child support payments, and lead fathers to assume a fuller parental role.
3) Make Work Pay: It’s time to raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation, a policy move that will help to reduce working poverty and inequality among low-income black male earners.
Justice is never given; it is exacted and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship.
– Asa Philip Randolph