Black History Month: A. Philip Randolph

CUPE Local 1989 celebrates Black History Month by highlighting the life and work of A. Philip Randolph.

A. Philip Randolph was a labour organizer, a civil rights leader, a journalist, and one of the most influential African-American leaders of the 20th Century.

A. Philip Randolph said: “Freedom is never given. It is won.”

With his friend Chandler Owen, Randolph founded and was co-editor of The Messenger, an African-American socialist magazine.

Randolph is best remembered for establishing (in 1925) and leading the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American labour union. The union — which was active in both the US and Canada — represented nearly 10,000 Black men and women who worked for railroads.

The men and women in the union worked as porters and maids for the Pullman Company’s luxury overnight trains. They worked very long hours for little pay, with no job security. Half their wages would be spent on food and lodging while on the job. They even paid for their own (mandatory) uniforms, and relied mainly on tips for income.

These men were not even allowed the dignity of their own names — all Pullman Porters were called “George,” after owner George Pullman.

A book about the Pullman Porters is called “My name’s not George.

Randolph and the Brotherhood faced opposition on all fronts — from other unions, from the Black community, and of course from their employer.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) reflected the racism and discrimination that was the norm in the US at that time, so there was much opposition to accepting the Brotherhood as part of the broader labour movement.

Many African-Americans viewed the Pullman workers as elite and well-off — after all, they had steady employment. At the same time, many middle-class Blacks viewed union organizers as trouble-makers who would give their a community a bad name.

The Pullman Company tried everything to keep the workers from organizing, including a smear campaign against Randolph himself.

But the Brotherhood persisted. In 1937, after more than 10 years of struggle, the Pullman Company finally signed a collective agreement with the Brotherhood.

A. Philip Randolph was one of the principal organizers of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom.

In the 1940s, Randolph was the driving force behind ending discrimination in government defense factories and in desegregating the armed forces. Both of these milestones occurred decades before the civil rights movement was even recognized by the mainstream United States.

Randolph was also a principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington at which Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

A. Philip Randolph knew that without economic justice, there can be no freedom. He spent his life fighting for workers, and he made a real difference.