A. Philip Randolph’s devotion to trade unionism helped shape his perspective on civil rights that racial freedom, while inestimable, still required parallel economic progress. Because trade unionism had been the main engine of economic advancement for the working class, and most blacks were workers, he advocated a grand alliance between blacks and the trade union movement.
In the Harlem of Randolph’s years, it took courage for a black intellectual to advocate such an alliance. Many blacks regarded organized labor as an enemy of racial integration, because blacks were barred from most of labor’s craft unions.
Randolph relentlessly attacked unions that excluded black workers. His tireless agitation caused clashes with American Federation of Labor President George Meany, but Randolph understood the political and organizational problems that Meany had with the all-white unions, and Meany recognized Randolph’s tenacity and the justice of his cause.
When Randolph resigned as an AFL-CIO vice-president in 1974, organized labor had become the most integrated American institution, even if pockets of resistance remained. Randolph, one of the greatest black labor leaders in American history, played a key role in the progress through his ceaseless agitation and unflagging struggle for racial and economic democracy in the American workplace.
After his courageous struggle to organize the BSCP, A. Philip Randolph emerged as one of the most respected figures in black America, and invested that prestige in building a mass action civil rights movement.
He organized the March on Washington Movement (MOWM), based on the Ghandian principle of nonviolent direct mass action. The MOWM won its first major victory in June 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt issued an Executive Order banning discrimination in the federal government and the defense industry, after Randolph had threatened to lead a march into the nation’s capital. The achievement catapulted Randolph into being known as “the towering civil rights figure of the period.” In 1948, Randolph secured another historic Executive Order from President Harry Truman to ban racial segregation in the armed forces.
In the 1950s and 1960s, both Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr. employed the organizing gifts of Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s greatest protege, culminating in the massive 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Conceived by Randolph, the march was the largest demonstration to date for racial and economic equality.
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March on Washington Movement flyer, ca. 1941
Using the organizational power of the BSCP, Randolph formed a March on Washington Committee (MOWC) to urge 10,000 blacks to “march on Washington for jobs in national defense and equal integration in the fighting forces.” Scheduled for July 1, 1941, the threatened mass protest forced President Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 on June 25, banning racially discriminatory employment in defense industries and the federal government, and creating the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate complaints. Randolph “postponed” the march on June 28 via radio.