A. Philip Randolph

A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) was a prominent socialist activist in the civil rights movement. Jacobin summarises his achievements thusly:

A black trade unionist and socialist, Randolph’s long political career started in the 1910s (when his Harlem-based magazine the Mess­en­ger staked out a pro-labor, pro-socialist position) ran through the 1930s and ’40s (when he gained renown for leading the Bro­ther­hood of Sleep­ing Car Por­ters and the first March on Wash­ing­ton) and stretched well into the ’60s (when he founded the Negro American Labor Council and served as the official head of the 1963 March on Washington).

Randolph was born to a working class family in Florida, and moved to Harlem in 1911, hoping to become an actor (as his family hadn’t had the resources to send him to college, despite him being class valedictorian). He didn’t get very far with acting but he did discover Marxism, and threw himself enthusiastically into efforts to organise the Black working class into trade unions, seeing the need for a strategy that would challenge racism and capitalism simultaneously. He was a sharp critic of W.E.B. Du Bois, who he saw as a “parlor socialist” who had unacceptably supported the carnage of the First World War. He also despised the Black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who he described as a “charlatan”.

In 1925, he founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a trade union of Black workers who were hyperexploited on the railways (working 400 hours a month for $72.50 in wages). During this time he worked closely with Frank Crosswaith, another Black socialist. Organising for a better deal was extremely difficult, with the Great Depression presenting a massive setback, but the New Deal re-energised the struggle and in 1937, finally, the union won their demands, with their work month reducing to 240 hours and their wages doubling. This experience shaped his politics significantly for the struggle ahead in the civil rights movement.

Randolph formed part of a strain of Black liberationist politics that pushed back against a more middle class idea that Black people should simply demonstrate they can be just as “cultured” and “educated” and “respectable” as middle-class whites, and thus prove they “deserved” equality. Randolph and others like him realised that, conversely, the working class wield enormous power – if they revoke their labour, capitalism grinds to a halt – and that this could be used to force the government to meet their demands. There were a huge number of Black trade unionists involved in this part of the civil rights movement, and trade unions were quite involved in many of the marches, paying for things like sound systems for example. They were also inspired by the success of mass protests and general strikes in India, which ultimately succeeded in winning that country’s independence.

Randolph was one of the leading organisers of the first March on Wash­ing­ton, which took place when the USA was just on the verge of entering into WW2 in 1941. It was held after Randolph and some others had met with FDR directly to try to convince him to desegregate the military, with little success. They demanded that the military be desegregated and that racial discrimination be banned in the federal government workforce, and the workforces of their contractors. Word was spread to people about the march by means of the railroad networks that Randolph had established through his work with the BSCP. In the end, FDR was so intimidated by the figure of 100,000 marchers that Randolph and co. promised, that he signed an executive order banning racial discrimination in the defence industry, and creating the FEPC to investigate reports of discrimination, just a few days before the march was to take place. The FEPC was not perfect (it was a bit weak, and simply outlawing racial discrimination doesn’t completely eliminate it), but it was an important step forward.

In 1948, Randolph threatened not only more marches, but also called on young Black men to resist the draft if Truman didn’t desegregate the armed forces. He led pickets at the Democratic National Congress in July that year to shame them, too. Truman was furious, but ultimately caved in and signed such an order (and desegregated the federal public service at the same time).

The second March on Washington, in 1963, demanded that racial discrimination in employment be outlawed entirely. Bizarrely the march is remembered today as a “moderate” event, best known for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, but in reality it was a trade union march with labour-focused demands that represented the Black working class.

In the mid-1960s, Randolph (along with Bayard Rustin) put forward an agenda for a radical reform that would give the US a true welfare state. He called for full employment, housing for all, a public healthcare system, a higher minimum wage, and improvements to Social Security. Unfortunately the beginning of the Vietnam War saw the campaign for this fizzle right out. It did put him in opposition to the Black Power movement which also got going in the late 1960s, as the Black Power movement ultimately pushed for far less transformative campaigns to “buy Black” and form Black-led cooperative businesses – basically to enhance the status of the Black petit bourgeoisie, rather than to actually challenge capitalism (whatever their rhetoric).

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