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Laborer for justice

Asa Philip Randolph was once called "the most dangerous Negro in the United States," and The Messenger, a magazine he started with Chandler Owen, was recognized as "the most radical Negro magazine in the country."

Randolph's plans to organize a march on Washington in 1941 created enough pressure to cause President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, making it a crime for companies with government contracts to refuse to hire blacks. In 1948, largely because of pressure from Randolph's national protest campaign to persuade blacks not to fight in a Jim Crow Army, President Harry S Truman signed Executive Order 9981, integrating the Armed Forces.

Randolph's relentless pursuit of recognition for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters angered George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO. In 1959, at a national AFL-CIO meeting, Meany said to Randolph, then an AFL-CIO vice president: "Who the hell appointed you as guardian of all the Negro members in America?" Two years later, Meany apologized to Randolph.

Not only was A. Philip Randolph the organizer and first president of the most powerful black union in this country, he also was the father of the civil rights movement.

In 1963, Randolph, with labor organizer Bayard Rustin, called for a second March on Washington for civil rights for black people. Appropriately, it was Randolph who stood under the Lincoln Memorial and delivered the first speech:

"Let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers. . . . We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for job and freedom. . . . This civil rights revolution is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not, and we know we have no future in a society in which 6-million black and white people are unemployed and millions live in poverty."

Still, many of the people present on that warm August day did not know it was Randolph who had initiated the call for a march on Washington.

Randolph is best known for his labor organizing. He and a handful of dedicated black porters organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, overcoming poverty, brutality and slanderous propaganda by the Pullman Corp.

The book A. Philip Randolph: Integration in the Workplace by Sarah Wright gives a detailed account of his life and work organizing porters. Other information can be found in From Slavery to Freedom by Dr. John Hope Franklin.

In the early 1920s, there were thousands of black Pullman car porters employed by the railroad companies. They made up beds, polished shoes, served meals, carried luggage, maneuvered their way between car couplings, and in general maintained the railroad cars and served anyone who came aboard. It was dirty, dangerous, backbreaking work, but some of the brightest, most educated black men took the jobs. According to A. Philip Randolph, a single bad word about a porter from a rider could mean firing.

When the porters approached Randolph to be their organizer, they worked 100 hours a week _ more than twice as long as other workers _ for $15 a week. Even with tips, they earned less than other railroad workers.

After much thought, Randolph agreed to be their organizer, and on Aug. 25, 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was started in the hall of the Imperial Lodge of Elks in New York City. It wasn't until 1936, after experiencing a membership drop from 7,000 members to 770 at one point, that the union got full acceptance from the American Federation of Labor. In 1937, more than 8,000 porters benefited from a wage increase of $1,152,000.

Randolph's strength came from his parents. His father, the Rev. James William Randolph, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and his mother, Elizabeth, encouraged their two sons to struggle for their freedom.

Randolph grew up in Jacksonville. His parents told him and his brother, James Jr., that education was their key to success. They had a library in their home, and their father read to them and required good diction when his sons read. The Rev. Randolph hoped that Asa Philip would be a minister.

But Randolph saw great racial brutality in Jacksonville. He remembered his parents' bravery as they demanded their rights and the rights of other black people.

He and his brother attended Cookman Institute, now Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Later, Randolph moved to Harlem in hopes of becoming an actor. He even played the roles of Hamlet and Othello. But his parents did not approve, so Randolph forsook his first love.

In 1914, he married Lucille Green, a graduate of Howard University, who had become a cosmetologist with Madame C.J. Walker, a black woman who made millions from black hair-care products. During his years of labor organizing, proceeds from his wife's thriving hair salon kept them from starving.

New York was full of new ideas and political issues that Randolph had never heard before. He joined the Socialist Party and began organizing black workers and talking to black people about uniting. He even spoke on street corners. One afternoon, a short man approached and asked if Randolph would speak to his group. It was Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

In 1917, Randolph and Chandler Owen, also a Socialist, started The Messenger, which called for a workers revolution. Randolph even spoke out against World War I, urging disenfranchised black men not to enlist or fight.

The magazine's popularity grew, and so did the harassment. In 1917, during a speech in Cleveland, Ohio, Randolph was arrested for violating the Espionage Act and sent to prison. The government official who arrested Randolph had a copy of The Messenger in his hand.

After his release from prison, Randolph continued to organize. But he and Owen became disenchanted and left the Socialist Party. They felt the white members were unconcerned about the plight of black people. Soon after, Randolph was approached by the black porters.

When Randolph was in his late 70s, the AFL-CIO, Rustin and other friends organized the A. Philip Randolph Institute in New York City to be a center for ideas that continued Randolph's work. It was devoted to increasing voter registration among black people, union organizing and assisting black people in getting management positions in business.

Randolph died in 1979 at the age of 90.

Tampa native Robert Saunders, former NAACP Florida field director, says Randolph was his mentor; Randolph often called him his son, Saunders said.

Saunders recalls an incident in 1965 that showed Randolph's commitment to the civil rights movement: He had scheduled Randolph to speak at an NAACP state meeting in West Palm Beach. The day before the banquet, Randolph's secretary called to say Randolph was too ill; the doctor would not allow him to attend.

The day of the banquet, Randolph called and said a special railroad car was bringing him to Florida.

"He got out of his sick bed to keep this commitment," Saunders says. "Some 200 people were there when they backed that special car into the station. Randolph spoke to an overpacked audience that night. He was a tall, kind man with a heavy voice and perfect diction. Along with Roy Wilkins, (deceased NAACP executive secretary) and Walter White (deceased national NAACP secretary), Randolph was my idol."

Information for this story came from A. Philip Randolph: Integration in the Workplace by Sarah Wright, and From Slavery to Freedom by Dr. John Hope Franklin.