Most Americans have never heard of A. Philip Randolph, but he belongs in the pantheon of this country’s greatest civil rights and labor leaders.
As a champion of African American rights, Randolph rivaled Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and any president or other elected official.
It was Randolph— not MLK — who organized the 1963 March on Washington. General confusion on this point is quite understandable, given that King’s soaring “I Have a Dream” speech will likely forever define the event in popular historical memory.
However, Randolph had first conceptualized the March on Washington twenty years before, during World War II, to protest employment discrimination in defense industries. Franklin Roosevelt — eager to avoid domestic disruptions during the largest armed conflict in human history — issued an executive order directing defense contractors to institute racially equitable hiring practices. In return, Randolph agreed to call off the march.
In 1948, as the Cold War escalated, Randolph helped persuade Harry Truman to issue an executive order desegregating the armed forces.
As the Civil Rights Movement geared up in the ‘50s, Randolph forged fruitful alliances with the NAACP and MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In December 1961, Randolph dusted off his twenty-year-old idea for a March on Washington. This time, he hoped the demonstration would generate public pressure to force JFK and Congress to move on a major civil rights bill, and — more ambitiously — to expand economic opportunities for African Americans.
For 21 months, Randolph and his longtime associate Bayard Rustin planned the event, enlisting labor unions, religious organizations and civil rights groups. Four months before the march, Randolph endured a devastating personal loss : the death of his wife forty years into their marriage. He persevered despite his grief.
Finally, on August 28, 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought roughly 250,000 demonstrators to the National Mall for a rousing day of speeches and song. Through radio and television, the event reached a wider audience.
Although President Kennedy had eloquently endorsed the civil rights bill just two months before, he declined to attend the March. Instead, he invited Randolph and other event leaders to meet him at the White House that night.
Sadly, the March failed to yield immediate results. It did not shift public opinion dramatically in favor of civil rights, nor persuade JFK to devote significant political capital to the cause. By the fall of 1963, Kennedy planned to reverse his sagging approval ratings and improve his prospects for reelection the following year by doing something for “the middle class man in the suburbs.” Even if JFK had made civil rights a top priority, he probably lacked the political skill to shepherd such controversial legislation through Congress.
Randolph’s March began to pay dividends once Lyndon Johnson became president in November 1963. The Texan defied stereotypes by coming out of the closet as a proponent of full racial equality. To help shift public opinion, LBJ exaggerated JFK’s commitment to the cause and sold the civil rights bill as a way for a grieving country to honor the memory of their slain leader. Johnson expertly maneuvered the bill through Congress, winning House passage by February and Senate approval in June, enabling him to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 just nine months after the March on Washington.
Randolph continued to support LBJ on civil rights, the Great Society, and the War on Poverty.
“Salvation for a race, nation or class must come from within. Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”
“In every truth, the beneficiaries of a system cannot be expected to destroy it.”
“At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”
“We must develop huge demonstrations, because the world is used to big dramatic affairs. They think in terms of hundreds of thousands and millions and billions… Billions of dollars are appropriated at the twinkling of an eye. Nothing little counts.”
“Nothing counts but pressure, pressure, more pressure, and still more pressure through broad organized aggressive mass action.”
“Equality is the heart and essence of democracy, freedom, and justice, equality of opportunity in industry, in labor unions, schools and colleges, government, politics, and before the law. There must be no dual standards of justice, no dual rights, privileges, duties, or responsibilities of citizenship. No dual forms of freedom.”
“A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”
“If the Church, white or black, is to express the true philosophy of Jesus Christ, Himself a worker, it will not lend itself to the creed of oppressive capitalism which would deny to the servant his just hire [i.e., fair compensation].”
“Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.”
“Make wars unprofitable and you make them impossible.”