Activity: A. Philip Randolph: Civil Rights and Labor Leader

Asa Philip Randolph’s (1889-1979) mass action strategy — based on the Ghandian principle of nonviolent direct action — spearheaded modern civil rights activism in the United States. The last and greatest mass demonstration he sponsored, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was the largest protest for racial equality. Randolph’s devotion to trade unionism helped shape his perspective on civil rights that racial freedom required parallel economic progress. His life was a passionate struggle to achieve the linked goals of racial and economic justice. To learn more about Randolph, consult these resources:

  • Anderson, Jervis., A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. New York, 1973.
  • Hanley, Sally., A. Philip Randolph. (Black Americans of Achievement series.) New York, 1989.
  • Pfeffer, Paula F., A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Louisiana, 1990.

    Primary Material:
  • Randolph’s personal papers are deposited in the Library of Congress.

Randolph speaks on labor and civil rights:

    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.

    –Date and place unknown

    Civil rights represents democracy and democracy represents civil rights. No individual in a state is a full citizen of that state unless he has the attributes of citizenship, and the attributes of citizenship are involved in civil rights and civil liberties…. Therefore, the labor movement, representing great masses of workers, has the moral responsibility for its commitment to the principle of civil rights.

    –Address to the 1957 convention, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations

Discuss Randolph’s words in the first quote above. Given his mass action strategy, what did Randolph advocate that participants in the civil rights and labor movements “take” and “hold”? In his reference to “organization,” what does he mean? Is organization within the civil rights movement similar to organization within the labor movement? If so, how? If not, how does it differ?

Create local and community history:

  • Conduct oral/video interviews with relatives, family friends, teachers, ministers, or community residents who were active in the civil rights or labor movements. In what types of protests (e.g., marches, sit-ins, strikes, boycotts, etc.) were they involved? Which action do they think had the biggest impact on our laws at the local, state, and national level? Which action immediately changed people’s behavior or attitudes? How was the change noticeable?
  • Research your community’s history by visiting your library, archives, historical society, and museums. Present the results of your research — including your oral/video interviews — in the form of a panel discussion, report, exhibit, skit, Web page, radio broadcast, or other ways that will reach the public.

ACTIVITY: Group discussion. OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to: 1) work collectively toward a common goal; and 2) explore the limitations and advantages of different mass action methods.

Civil rights in the 21st century:

Using Randolph’s 1957 quote as a guide, brainstorm* to generate a list of words/phrases to define civil rights in the 21st century. Then discuss how to plan a virtual march by responding to the same questions posed in the role-play activity: What will you do? How will you achieve your goal(s)? Who will you involve? Compare strategies used in the role-play with those required for cyberspace, noting differences/similarities in objectives, mass action methods, and audience. Can a cyberspace march result in social change? If so, how? If not, why?

*How to brainstorm: set a time limit; respond one at a time; respond quickly, in a few words; think of as many ideas as you can; do not explain or evaluate ideas during the limited time; write ideas on the blackboard or a flip chart; at the end of the time limit, or after ideas have been exhausted, evaluate the list; combine, then prioritize ideas (e.g., which are most important?).