A. Philip Randolph/Sleeping Car Porters
A brief history of the man behind the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
Salvation for a race, nation or class must come from within. Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.
—A. Philip Randolph
A. Philip Randolph, 1889-1979, was one of America’s most prominent civil rights activists and trade unionists. Among his numerous accomplishments, Randolph was a Civil Rights Activist, Trade Union Leader, and Crusader for Justice. But what do the stories of civil rights and organized labor have to do with railroads anyway?
Plenty. As America’s first “big business,” railroads were—for good or bad—a major target for early efforts at trade union organization. For workers of European descent, these efforts would prove successful as early as the late 19th century. It would take another three decades, however, before a single U.S. labor union would willingly represent black workers.
Pullman Porters In large part, the story of A. Philip Randolph is the story of how African Americans working for the Pullman company struggled and ultimately won the right to collectively bargain with management. Beginning in 1925, Randolph helped shape the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters into a significant force in American labor.
It was not to be an easy task. Pullman was a powerful, long-established corporation that was not about to be unionized without a fight. In an era when blacks had relatively few employment options, Pullman had on its side the power to fire porters summarily. Anyone known to have ties to the Brotherhood was watched carefully, and likely to be dismissed from employment.
By law, Pullman was forced to recognize and negotiate with unions beginning in 1920. But since labor unions themselves were segregated, African Americans employed by Pullman did not enjoy the benefits of this post-World War I ruling.
Ironically, it was the federal government’s Depression-era labor policies that would pave the way for full recognition of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Formal recognition of the Brotherhood by Pullman would finally come in 1937. Throughout the entire struggle, Randolph remained a strong, principled leader who could be neither bullied nor bought.
Moving On For Randolph, once the battle to organize sleeping car porters was won there were many other civil rights causes to pursue. A strong desegregationist, Randolph firmly believed that African Americans would benefit most from a program of social reform and economic equality within American society.
During the late 1930s, Randolph was instrumental in organizing the first mass-oriented civil rights movement in the U.S. The March on Washington Movement of the 1940s pressured Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to capitulate on major issues, including the banning of black exclusion within the defense industry in 1941 and dissolution of segregation in the armed forces in 1948.
From World War II onward—when America was preoccupied with Hitler, the global spread of communism, and the threat of nuclear warfare—the struggle for equality became increasingly challenging. Yet with determination and vigor A. Philip Randolph became a national leader, dubbed “the towering civil rights figure of the period.”
In 1957, Randolph began a collaboration with Dr. Martin Luther King that would culminate in the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Conceived by Randolph, this would be the largest protest demonstration ever held on behalf of racial equality. As he had earlier, Randolph formed coalitions among labor, civil rights, and religious organizations in the struggle to attain racial freedom and economic justice.
In 1964, long-deserved recognition was bestowed on A. Philip Randolph for his many accomplishments when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The nation’s highest civilian honor, it was a well-deserved tribute to Randolph’s creative, energetic, and central role in the 20th century struggle for American civil rights.
More Information Readers wishing to learn more about A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters are encouraged to visit or contact the California State Railroad Museum Library. A number of books in the Library’s collection are available on the subject, ranging from easy-to-read children’s histories to oral histories to detailed academic reviews. The California State Railroad Museum Store also stocks several titles about this subject.